Chituru Odunze gets back home after a long day, his limbs are tired but his head is full of excitement.
The international break may be considered tedious by supporters, but the 6ft 7 goalkeeper has just finished a training session with Leicester City’s first-team squad, (a consequence of international departures).
“No disrespect to the academy, but professional footballers play much faster, and they catch you off guard a bit more, especially as a goalkeeper,” he says. “The English brand of football is very fast-paced.”
Although many of Leicester’s first-team are away from the club representing their countries there remains a sprinkling of Premier League talent on the training pitch. Most notably, Jamie Vardy.
“It’s a great confidence boost if you’re able to save the shots of the top goalscorer in the Premier League [Vardy],” he says. “I get to see first hand where the top level is and what I need to be to get there.”
Thankfully, Odunze is never thrown in the deep end alone. When required, he can often lean on the club’s senior goalkeepers --Eldin Jakupovic, Danny Ward, and Kasper Schmeichel-- for advice. The trio brings a wealth of experience both at club and international level, and Odunze has been keen to take advantage of that.
“All of the goalkeepers at Leicester have been quite welcoming,” he says. “Kasper, 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.”
While the promised land of the Premier League is the long-term goal, for now, Odunze is focused on breaking into a competitive U23 side at Leicester. The presence of Filip Benkovic in central defence is a good gauge of the standard. A senior Croatian international, Benkovic spent last season on loan at Celtic and played 20 games for the club, collecting a league winners medal.
Odunze doesn’t sound daunted by the prospect, however. His maturity presents itself at various points during our conversation. He is eager to focus on improving, and appears patient --something he believes was instilled in him by his parents. Odunze’s parents were both born in Nigeria. His father spent time as a teacher and a chemist, while his mother works as a general practitioner at a clinic they both own.
“My family [including my siblings] are all in science,” he says. “I’m kind of the odd one out playing football [laughs].”
His parents’ work has taken the family across the globe. Odunze is currently a U.S. youth international, but he is also eligible to represent England, Canada, and Nigeria.
“I was born in North Carolina, but I wasn’t there very long,” he said. “I was taken over to England, and I lived there up until the age of 11. While I was there, I played with the Chelsea academy. That’s how I get my English accent [laughs]. Then I moved to Calgary, Alberta, Canada. We stayed there for about three years, and it was then I moved to Vancouver by myself and played for the Vancouver Whitecaps for a while.”
Odunze was discovered by Leicester while playing for the U.S. at a tournament in Chester, England. The topic of dual nationals feels relevant right now after the Three Lions secured commitments from Fikayo Tomori and Tammy Abraham.
Odunze admits he can’t escape an idle thought about international opportunities, but he is keen for it only to be a momentary consideration.
“Of course, there are times you catch yourself thinking about it, but it’s just about living in the present,” he says. “I just need to make sure I’m doing as well as I can to put myself in the best position possible, and all of that stuff can come in time. We’ll get there when we get there.”
The teenager would be forgiven for daydreaming, however. High fives with Schmeichel and shots from Vardy are just two aspects of his exciting new life in Leicester. It’s a far cry from his start in the game, where his emergence as a goalkeeper arrived by accident.
“I was playing in midfield, and our goalkeeper didn’t show up, so I said ‘just throw me in goal’ because my brother used to do the same when I played with his mates,” he says. “To be fair, I’ve just had a worldie of a game [laughs]. The parents and coaches are going crazy, and I just saw myself in goal from then on.”
That unexpected opportunity put Odenze on a path to Leicester. While the teenager will face much greater challenges in the months and years to come, he sounds ready for them, and that in itself is a significant first step.
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