Noble Okello is soaking in the experience of the 2019 Concacaf Gold Cup.
Yet to feature in MLS, the 18-year-old midfielder signed a first team contract with Toronto FC in January and was a surprise inclusion in John Herdman's Canadian Men's National Team for the tournament.
“Honestly, it's been amazing,” said Okello after arriving in Denver, Colorado ahead of Canada's second match. “Learning from the best players in Canada, playing with players that have played for great clubs, learning a lot about the game, how to be an even better pro. It's just really exciting.”
A silky central midfielder, this is not Okello's first time representing his country.
He was part of a Herdman-led U-23 side that impressed at the Toulon Tournament last May, one that included current national teammates Jonathan David, Liam Millar, and Derek Cornelius and led Canada's U-20 side in the 2018 Concacaf Championship with three goals. The previous year he was part of Paul Stalteri's group at the 2017 Concacaf U-17 Championship.
Now with the full side, Okello is keeping a close eye on a few of the key leaders, who happen to play in his areas of the pitch.
“I've been watching a lot of Scott Arfield and Atiba Hutchinson,” highlighted Okello. “Those guys are very good leaders, people that represent Canada really well.”
Arfield is captaining the side at the tournament; Hutchinson, now 36, is a legend.
“I'm trying to learn a lot from them,” added Okello, who appreciates having some of his TFC teammates – Jonathan Osorio and Ashtone Morgan – there as well to show him the ropes. “Of course, Ash and Oso, leaders for TFC and for Canada. They help me out here a lot too.”
In camp since the start of the month, it's the intensity that has stood out.
“Whether it's a passing drill or something very simple, everybody is intense, no fooling around. [Hutchinson and Arfield] especially really emphasize that for the group.”
That is exactly what Greg Vanney thinks Okello needs to absorb.
“Noble is talented. You can see when he plays the game he's like a swan, he moves, it's nice, it's fluid, but what he needs to add to his game is a different intensity level, especially on the defensive side,” explained Vanney. “Only a few minutes of the game is played where you're on the ball, there is a much larger chunk played when you don't have the ball.”
“That consistency, not just on the defensive side, but his movement to prepare himself early to get ball from one side to the other side quickly,” detailed Vanney. “Physically he's still filling out, as he continues to put muscle on his frame his figure is going to be imposing. What I'd like to see out of him is that he starts to play to his size.”
“He should be physically imposing in the game. The opposition should look and go, 'There is this mountain of a guy in this midfield that we've got to get through to make things happen,'” added Vanney, anticipating that this experience will aid in that journey. “Those are the things that he needs to mature and grow, but you see his capability and capacity to flow with the ball.”
Okello is up for the challenge: “I'm just trying to get better everyday, whether here with the national team or at TFC.”
“Better at my game, whether it's passing, tackling, playing more aggressive, scoring goals, getting assists,” he continued. “I want to push myself to get some playing time for the first team and really give myself a chance to show what I can do. Right now, I'm just working hard.”
When Canada won 4-0 over Martinique in their opening match of the tournament, Okello was on the bench absorbing it all.
“It was amazing, the whole day really – the preparations leading up to the game, the match itself,” he said. “It was nice seeing our team put what we worked on on the field and get the win, especially in the second half, seeing the team come together and start showing their qualities..”
Though he allowed himself to enjoy it, Okello is not just there for experience.
“It's a dream come true, seeing all this happen from a relatively young age. When I see my jersey hanging up, my name on the back, it's unbelievable because I've always dreamed about having this opportunity, this Gold Cup experience,” relived Okello. “But I'm not just in awe. I'm focused. If my opportunity comes, if I'm called upon, I'm not going to let the environment leave me in awe. I'm going to be ready when and if it comes.”
Up next for Okello and Canada is a date with Mexico on Wednesday night in Denver, a match that should determine who will top Group A.
“I'm really looking forward to our team going out there, showing the world that we're a good team, not one that Mexico can run over,” said Okello. “We have really good players and everyone is excited, really up for this game, because it gives us a chance to show what we can do against good opposition.”