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SSFC Spotlight: Bryan Okoh working back from injury with Red Bull Salzburg

The quad-national center back is overcoming a serious injury.

FC Red Bull Salzburg v SK Austria Klagenfurt - Admiral Bundesliga Photo by Andreas Schaad - FC Red Bull Salzburg/FC Red Bull Salzburg via Getty Images

In recent years, a noted strength of the United States Men’s National Team is recruiting players eligible for or already competing with other programs. With the next World Cup less than four years away, supporters have compiled lists of hypothetical converts who could add quality to the roster. Bryan Okoh of Red Bull Salzburg currently competes with Switzerland and has long been considered one of the world’s top young prospects. The 19-year-old has spent over a year on the sidelines with a cruciate ligament rupture and is on the way to making his return to the field.

Born in Houston, Texas, Okoh grew up in French-speaking Romandy (sometimes stylized Romandie), Switzerland and competed with FC Espagnol Lausanne. The ambidextrous defender then moved to Lausanne-Sport, playing up several age levels with the U-18 squad, earning praise for his strength “on the field and at school.” His performances with the Vaud club drew the attention of the Red Bull Salzburg, one of the world’s renowned scouting operations, and many other English, German, and Italian outfits.

His talent and readiness for the professional game were obvious from a young age. “He had stood out with the national youth selections and the proposals were already coming from everywhere,” said Lausanne-Sport’s then-sporting director Pablo Iglesias. “We tried to keep him, [and] we met the family to offer him things... I remember, at the time, recruiters asked us what his best foot was. But he was already capable of sending crosses from the left and the right. Around his twelve or thirteen years, he lived near Vallorbe and made long journeys alone. He was quickly very autonomous and, unlike many, Bryan very quickly knew how to take charge of himself.”

After relocating to Austria for “more than two million euros” on a three-year deal in 2019, Okoh made an immediate impact, locking down a starting role with the U-18 team that reached the semifinals of the UEFA Youth League. However, his errant back-pass contributed to the elimination loss against Real Madrid. He also became a key figure with the reserves, FC Liefering, featuring nine times in the country’s second-tier professional division.

The next season, despite reportedly being considered for a loan to Sturm Graz, the teenager continued to compete with the reserves, making 15 appearances. He scored his first goal, finding the back of the net in a 6-2 victory over SV Horn and followed that up with the match-winning assist the next week against FC Wacker. Liefering came devastatingly close to claiming the league title but finished runners-up behind Blau-Weiß Linz by a goal-differential margin of +39 to +38.

Last season, Okoh got off to a promising start, making the bench for a UEFA Champions League qualifying fixture against Bröndby. He continued being sporadically included in the first-team’s match-day roster before earning his senior debut in the second round of the Austrian Cup. The defender appeared for 33 minutes in an 8-0 romp over SC Kalsdorf and converted a cross in the 83rd minute.

Salzburg extended his contract through June of 2025, recognizing his near seamless adaptation to the club’s specific gegenpressing style. “I pass between the two teams at the moment,” Okoh told 20 Minuten. “It’s not always easy to adapt to it. But it’s a great challenge and I feel capable of taking it up. The most important thing is to have time to play... I feel that, there, I have the confidence of the staff. They are very happy with me and I have to continue like this.”

In addition to his first-team breakthrough, Okoh continued appearing with the reserves and in the UEFA Youth League. While on international duty that November, the emerging prospect suffered a devastating non-contact cruciate ligament rupture in his right knee during training. His injury occurred during the final session before a World Cup qualifier against Italy.

After returning to Salzburg, Okoh underwent “multiple surgeries” and has been out for over a year. His rehabilitation remains on track with the manager noting his positivity “despite everything.” The defender is training and targeted to return during the second half of the season, although there is still plenty of work to be done to reach full fitness.

At the international level, Okoh is eligible to compete with Switzerland, the United States (which has reportedly “shown interest”), the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Nigeria. He has received regular call-ups to the former nation beginning at the U-15 level. His most recent appearance came in September of 2021, starting and playing 90 minutes at center back in a UEFA European Under-21 Championship qualifier against Gibraltar. Shortly after, an invitation to join the Rossocrociati (Red Crosses) for cap-tying World Cup qualifiers against Italy and Bulgaria was derailed by his injury during training.

Standing 6’2”, Okoh is a left-footed center back who can line up at both spots in a pairing and considers his main strength to be defensive duels, using him imposing size and physical attributes to bully opponents. Chasing a Cup describes him as “an absolute tank who bulldozes any player in his path to win the ball” while “making major last-ditch tackles” before regaining possession and “accurately finding a teammate 30-40 yards away.” Similarly, Switzerland manager Murat Yakin praises his ability to dominate “one-on-one battles.” As with most inexperienced talents attempting to break into first-division leagues, his biggest areas for improvement are “decision making” and “concentration.”

Football Talent Scout compared the big four-potential talent to Dayot Upamecano, another talented defender developed by Red Bull. “[He] is a complete and dominant centre-back [and is] great at finding passes through both the first and second line of pressing from the opposition,” wrote Jacek Kulig. “[He is] known for his composure, positioning, good timing, confidence in possession, and understanding of the game. [His] strong left foot also helps in the balance of the team… [He is] a fast and agile player, with excellent reactions [and] often pushes forward to engage the player who receives a pass with his back to the goal. [He is] extremely dominant in the air, tactically astute, [and] tenacious in duels and confident at high speed.”

In all likelihood, Okoh will never play for the USMNT, having spent his entire youth career with Switzerland, a regular qualifier to the World Cup that is set to have several roster openings on the back line. For Gregg Berhalter or his hypothetical replacement, recruiting the 19-year-old center back into the fold would be one of the bigger coups in program history. In the meantime, observers should continue to casually monitor his progress as he returns from injury and attempts to regain prior career momentum.