Patrick Okonkwo’s hat trick paced Atlanta United’s U18 academy squad in their home debut this afternoon, leading them to a 5-1 win over Chargers SC of Clearwater, Florida.
Academy Director, and U18 head coach, Richard Money said after the match:
“I thought we were a little nervous in the first half, to be honest. I think we failed to realize how much of an ordeal it would be for one or two of these young guys who have never played in an environment like that very often, or at all.
In the second half, I thought we played with a lot more intensity, running off the ball. There was some really good play and some really good goals.”
A crowd of over 1,000 fans was on hand at Pace Academy for the match. The atmosphere was quite a departure from a typical youth match. It also contributed to a slightly frantic opening portion of the match as the players settled into the match.
Machop Chol was dangerous for United early, consistently beating defenders on the dribble and creating chances for his teammates. Okonkwo broke through in the 30th minute, latching onto a through ball and dribbling around the goalkeeper before finishing into an open net.
Late in the first half, a foul gave the Chargers a dangerous free kick. They pulled one off the training ground to level the score:
Okonkwo had a few more chances to add to his tally before halftime, but could not find the scoring touch. Money joked afterwards that Okonkwo could have had a hat trick in the first half alone. Okonkwo said:
“My coaches talked to me and I felt confidence. I came out (for the second half) with the right mind to score more goals and get the win for my team.
I know I need to work harder on that because I won’t have that many chances. Some types of games, I could only have one.”
Center back Edwin Figueroa capped off a fine afternoon by restoring the lead for United in the 60th minute. A free kick found Okonkwo at the near post. His flick gave Figueroa the opportunity to beat the on-rushing goalkeeper with a looping header.
From there, Money stayed on his team to maintain the pressure. There was an obvious difference in the fitness level between the two clubs on a hot afternoon. After the game, Money said:
“I think we have to remember that we put these guys together from all sorts of backgrounds and all sorts of clubs. We haven’t been together too long. It’s going to take a while for them to get their fitness levels to anywhere near where we want them to be, if they’re going to make the next step. I think they’re improving week by week.”
Okonkwo began to stamp his authority on the match at this point. Victor Pereyra-Zavala’s cross in the 65th minute from the right side saw Okonkwo beat his defender at the near post for a point blank header to make the score 3-1. Nine minutes later, he completed his hat trick with another header, this time off a cross delivered by left back John Michael Bandy.
Cheik Fofana added a final goal for United in the 89th minute to complete the 5-1 victory.
“It’s nice to walk off the pitch with a victory, of course, but it’s even more important to send the supporters away with happy smiles on their faces.