CINCINNATI -- Sean Okoli knew there were doubts he could compete at the Major League Soccer level after two years of minimal playing time there, but FC Cincinnati gave him the chance to finally showcase his abilities.
It was no surprise to FC Cincinnati fans that their star forward found an opportunity to get back to MLS, where his professional career began in 2014.
The 23-year-old United Soccer League MVP and Golden Boot winner announced last week that he would not return to FC Cincinnati. He signed Monday with New York City FC, which recently completed its second year as an MLS franchise.
"That's what this year was all about for me, getting a chance to showcase my abilities, and the coaches did a great job of putting me in an environment to do that," Okoli said. "I'm thankful for all they did for me. I'm glad everything worked out."
A USL Team of the Week honoree five times, Okoli jumped onto the national scene in FC Cincinnati's first home match with a scissor-kick goal that was voted No. 4 on ESPN SportsCenter's Top 10 that night. He finished the season with a league-leading 16 goals and 35 points while leading FC Cincinnati to a third-place finish in the Eastern Division table.
Now, Okoli is an example of what players can accomplish in Cincinnati.
Like many former MLS players who end up in the USL, Okoli had been crowded out of the lineup during the first two years of his professional career. The Federal Way, Washington native had signed with Seattle Sounders FC in 2014 as a homegrown player who had been with the club's Academy before going off to play at Wake Forest University in 2011. He left Wake after his junior year and made three appearances with the Sounders that first season as a pro.
Okoli was then traded to the Revs for their second-round pick during the 2015 MLS SuperDraft, and he logged 46 minutes in five appearances while stuck behind strikers Charlie Davies and Juan Agudelo at the top of the club's 4-2-3-1 formation.
With FC Cincinnati, he had a chance to be a star, but Okoli said it wasn't just what he did in games that helped him reach his goals of returning to MLS.
"The games were there to take advantage of, but every day training, working with the coaches, I was challenged every day and they pushed me to be better," Okoli said. "When I was in MLS the first two years, I thought I was getting better, playing in a high-level environment with a lot of talented players, so I thought I was doing well, but it was about showcasing it, and I hadn't really gotten the chance to do that. This year being able to do that I amplified things in my game. I got better as the season went along."
Okoli said it took the "right opportunity" to pull him from Cincinnati because he wasn't going to just sign with any MLS club. He feels he can be successful with New York City FC, which he sees as an ambitious club that believes in him.
FC Cincinnati certainly had hoped to keep Okoli, but president and general manager Jeff Berding said the club felt fortunate to find a player like him so late in the process of building its first roster. Okoli was one of the last players to sign in February.
"It's certainly not a preference for talented players to leave FC Cincinnati," Berding said. "We want to be the best franchise we can be, we want to win a championship and we need a strong roster to accomplish that goal. At the same time, the USL is an aspirational league. Clubs and players aspire to get to the next level and that's something we have to deal with.
"In the case with Sean, we had an opportunity to sign him as we were getting our preseason underway and it was important to him to get back to MLS. He was an MLS player and hadn't had sufficient opportunities to prove himself as a player, and we were fortunate to have him as part of our successful inaugural season. Success breeds success, and he got an opportunity to go back to MLS. We have pride that FC Cincinnati helped Sean achieve his goals. It shows that you can have an MVP-caliber season with quality coaches, a quality club, quality facilities and game atmosphere, and in that respect, it's a good selling point for FC Cincinnati."
Okoli said FC Cincinnati should be a top consideration for other players with aspirations of playing at the highest level.
"Throughout this process, a lot of people said I can't play at a high level, I can't play striker in this league (MLS), but challenges come up every year, and it's how you react," Okoli said. "I had a great opportunity with FC Cincinnati, I put in the hard work, and it paid off. I could be an example of what can be done there."
Now the race to replace Okoli is full on.
Berding had a player personnel meeting Tuesday evening, then left for the USL Board of Directors meetings in Florida on Wednesday but said the club could have more player signings next week. A "goal-scoring '9,' forward position that Sean Okoli played is a priority," Berding said.
FC Cincinnati has re-signed 16 of 26 players from its inaugural roster and likely will stay with a similar roster size.
"We have a lot of talented players and agents representing talented proven players contacting us with interest in playing for FC Cincinnati," Berding said. "There is significant interest from quality players -- more players than we have room for on our roster, so in that respect we are very confident we have an opportunity to improve our roster in a manner that will help achieve our goal of winning a league championship.
"The puzzle is putting the best players in priority positions in terms of helping our roster, within a salary structure we can afford."
Recent developments leading to concerns about the stability of the second-tier North American Soccer League also may have an influence on more players taking an interest in FC Cincinnati.
Two NASL teams already have joined the USL for next season, Minnesota United moves up to MLS in 2017 and the New York Cosmos are folding unless a new ownership group moves in.
"Agents from NASL players were contacting us before but it's fair to say there are some new players on the street and agents are reaching out to us," Berding said.
In the meantime, FC Cincinnati wishes Okoli the best in New York.
"Sean will always be remembered as an integral part of the club," Berding. "The excitement he brought to each game, his involvement with our community endeavors and the way he represented the franchise in a positive manner were key in our inaugural season. When we signed Sean in February, we supported his goal of returning to the MLS and we are proud that his positive experience with FC Cincinnati has helped him reach that goal. On behalf of Carl Lindner III and his family, and the rest of our ownership group and staff, we wish Sean nothing but success with New York City FC."
Added coach John Harkes, "Sean is a fantastic player and while we are sad to see him go, we are happy he has earned this opportunity to showcase his talents in the MLS with New York City FC. His passion for the game, his athleticism and his scoring ability will serve him well at the next level."