Orji Okwonkwo is fond of the Americas. After all that’s where he became a World Champion at under-17 level in 2015, his screamer of a goal in the semi-final helping the Golden Eaglets to a 4-2 success over fancied, Mexico.
He played in the final too, in Vina del Mar, Chile, a 2-0 victory over African neighbors, and then continental champions, Mali.
Back then a member of Abuja FC in Nigeria’s capital, Okwonkwo was dreaming of a career in one of European football’s elite leagues. Little did he know a return to the Americas would be in his stars in 2019, as a developmental step towards his lofty, ultimate ambition.
He arrives in Montreal from Bologna, having scored 3 Serie A goals in 27 appearances (4 starts) since 2016. At 19 he became the sixth youngest Nigerian ever to net in the Italian top-flight when scoring against Sassuolo last season, when for a spell he was the second-most efficient striker in the league behind Sampdoria’s u21 Polish international, Dawid Kownacki.
Okwonkwo’s three goals in 10 sightings gave him an average of a goal every 67 mins. By comparison, top league scorer at the time with 20 goals, Ciro Immobile, averaged a goal every 78 mins.
But the young striker’s first team opportunities were to dry up in a struggling Bologna outfit, which veered towards experience to hoist the club away from the relegation zone.
Now he finds himself the latest cog in Remi Revolution 101, as a much more stable and balanced Montreal Impact prepare to battle with North America’s finest for MLS glory.
Born in Benin City in southern Nigeria, and the first boy in a family of 6 children, Orji was to make his way to the capital for footballing reasons where he joined Abuja FC (C is for college). With the college he was a winner at the annual Karanka Reveria Invitational Tournament in Croatia in both 2013 and 2015.
Okwonkwo is a strong, forceful forward who likes to cut in from the left-attacking position with the ball at his feet. He was quite prolific for the Bologna youth teams, and also spent some time on loan with Brescia in Serie B last season (1 goal – 13 outings).
But he still goes back to that goal in the central Chilean city of Concepcion as the greatest he has ever scored. In Nigerian football parlance it is what’s known as an “intercontinental ballistic missile”, the ball rifling into the net from 35 yards.
Sadly his father didn’t live to see Orji become World Champion with the u17 Eaglets, passing away the previous year, but he was in the player’s thoughts as he dedicated the goal to his mum.
“I have never scored a goal like this before and you cannot practice this kind of goal.”
“The goal I scored against Mexico today is a wonderful goal and I am dedicating it to my mum, who has been there for me; always challenging me to be the best.”
“My dad died last year; I remember him too of course, but it is my mum that has been there for me all this while. I thank her so much.”
Where will Okwonkwo fit in?
While the player is a relative unknown in North American terms, an encouraging element of the move for Impact fans is the quality possessed by recent arrivals from Bologna, think Blerim Dzemaili and Saphir Taider. Should the new Nigerian perform at their level or close to it, then this can only be good news.
Okwonkwo’s favored position is a left side attacking role, and he may get the opportunity to operate from there, however probably only in the event of injury to Nacho Piatti. But the 21-year-old has also played on the opposite flank and as a second striker, so all of a sudden, and with the earlier arrival of Maxi Urruti, Remi Garde has what must feel like a luxurious array of attacking options in comparison to last season.
On the latest newcomer Remi Garde said, “I’m satisfied in welcoming another striker to the team. Orji Okwonkwo is a young player scouted by Bologna three years ago who will help reinforce the team offensively. He’s a strong and quick forward who has an interesting margin of progression. I would like to welcome him to the team.”
He may not initially be a starter, but Okwonkwo’s versatility could lead to a fluid switching of roles across the forward line during games, providing greater unpredictability up front.
Certainly there’s plenty of motivation and incentive for the striker, who’s already on the radar of Nigeria’s national coach, the German, Germot Rohr.
As well as national team ambitions, Okwonkwo, will be keen to return good reports and stats to Italy, from his season-long experience in MLS, ahead of a repatriation back into Bologna’s Serie A (hopefully) ranks later in 2019.
If all of that does come to pass, it will be in no small part down to a significant contribution in the bleu/blanc/noir of Montreal Impact in the coming months.