For three of the last four national team camps, a player yet to make his first professional appearance was named to the roster. Chituru Odunze, a towering 6’8” goalkeeper at Leicester City, is an intriguing prospect that seemingly receives call-ups whenever Gregg Berhalter convenes his squad in Europe. While not carried over to the CONCACAF Nations League, continued inclusion of the young talent is an admirable idea, particularly at a position in which development and playing time can come at a much later stage of the career.
Odunze was born in North Carolina before moving to England at a young age. He played at a variety of youth clubs and joined the Chelsea academy at the U-9 level. His family then relocated to Canada, competing in the local Calgary soccer scene before being scouted by the Vancouver Whitecaps at the Provincial Championship. Cardiff City brought him on trial with the first team, but he opted to stay with the MLS side. His parents, a retired chemist and family physician, placed “a priority” on his academic performance. He graduated from high school at the age of 16 and considered attending Harvard.
Point blank saves are something else and U-17 MNT's Chituru Odunze CAME THROUGH. pic.twitter.com/ARhD8aVGqa— U.S. Soccer (@ussoccer) December 19, 2019
Following a brief run with the U.S. U-17 team, Leicester City brought him in on a two-week trial. In August of 2019, Vancouver signed Odunze to a “Development Squad” contract and subsequently moved him to the Premier League club for “performance bonuses and a percentage of future transfer fees.” He made the journey back to England without his family but with their full support.
“Initially, I was supposed to go to a few clubs when I went [to England] for a few weeks,” Odunze told American Soccer Now. “But, after going to Leicester for the first week and them asking me to stay for the second, I was really happy with where I was, and I thought that if I worked hard in that second, I was quite positive that I would be able to impress. I thought that that was the place I wanted to be because the environment’s great and it’s a really nice family club.”
Since moving to the 2016 Premier League champions, Odunze has played mostly with the U-18 squad. The reserve and youth divisions of England can be a difficult grind, with uneven results and constantly shifting rosters preventing any semblance of continuity or chemistry. This season, he was in the lineup for two ugly performances, as Southampton and Fulham both scored eight goals. He describes his time at the club as “a great learning experience,” training “in a high, high performance environment” with “some of the best players and professionals in the world.”
Big save from @BeswicksSports @ChituruOdunze as the @LCFC U18 and @USYNT U17 player saves from the spot against @FulhamFC U18s yesterday at St George’s Park #TeamBeswicks #REMGMT pic.twitter.com/4CdIqKY5rN— George Mellor (@gmellor94) August 29, 2019
Odunze made his debut for the reserves in February, making four saves in a 1-1 draw against Brighton & Hove Albion. The club website praised his “commanding performance,” as well as his ability to stay focused and provide a “calming influence.” He played again the next week, this time in a 1-1 draw with the Chelsea U-23s. The club regularly calls him to train with the senior team and learn from more experienced teammates, helping him adapt to the faster-paced English game.
“All of the goalkeepers at Leicester have been quite welcoming,” he shared with Oddschecker. “Kasper [Schmeichel], Danny Ward, and Elden Jakupovic, they’re all really good role models at the club, and they sort of take you under their wing. They’ve taught me to calm down and be confident in my abilities. Of course, there are little pieces of technical information they give me while we’re training, but a lot of the lasting information I get from them is mental.”
In addition to the United States, Odunze is eligible to represent England, Canada, and Nigeria. He was named to the Canada U-15s in 2017 but has been a regular in the American set-up. The Raleigh native played in two matches at the 2019 U-17 World Cup, a winless campaign that saw Raphaël Wicky’s side finish at the bottom of Group D. His first senior call-up came in November of 2020 for the friendly matches against Wales and Panama. Although yet to feature, Berhalter named him to two subsequent camps.
Great 2-0 Win vs Mexico in my first U20 cap! ✅ pic.twitter.com/tOUGqsqJzT— Chituru Odunze (@ChituruOdunze) January 17, 2020
While his inclusion is presumed to be an attempt to gauge abilities and monitor progress, his long-term potential has been a point of interest for years at the club and international level. At 6’8”, Odunze is a physically imposing goalkeeper, able to reach shots that few can and close down angles on strikers. He’s surprisingly athletic and gets to the ground relatively quickly, capable of making the occasional acrobatic save. Stopping penalties is one of his biggest strengths, which is expected at his height.
Far from a finished product, there is room for improvement. As noted by writer Justin Sousa, the 18-year-old is “hesitant to claim crosses and command his box,” something that should be an asset for a player of his size. Another area of concern is distribution, which is becoming a necessity for top goalkeepers. Bill Reno of Everybody Soccer voices similar thoughts, writing that “striking a ball seems a bit of a choice for Odunze and handling crosses isn’t his specialty.” However, Leicester is “an ideal environment to round out his game.”
Young players face a lot of challenges when attempting to climb the ladder to first-team minutes. Goalkeepers are competing for limited opportunities, with many eventually settling for a long-term back-up role. Due to Leicester’s depth at the position, the future may take him away from the club, but his general career trajectory and role with the national team cannot be judged for almost another full decade. Odunze is an intriguing prospect with a high ceiling, whose awareness and hype among American fans and media should only continue to grow with further inclusion at national team camps.