Right back Anton Tinnerholm was sidelined in Major League Soccer’s concussion protocol, and the anticipated like-for-like replacement was Eric Miller, who was acquired from Minnesota United primarily to provide depth at right back in the event Tinnerholm was unavailable.
However, it was Sebastian Ibeagha replacing Tinnerholm in a match pitting the top two teams in the Eastern Conference. Ibeagha had played central defense in his previous 46 appearances with the club.
“I’ve trained there but not that much,” Ibeagha said. “Sometimes when we do positional stuff or crossing the ball but nothing excessive.”
To the surprise of the New York City manager, Héctor “Tito” Villalba started the game ahead of Meram, who had scored four goals with four assists in 10 previous matches against the Pigeons.
“That’s good news for us,” Torrent said when he received the Five Stripes lineup.
Ibeagha, described by Torrent as “a good one-v-one defender,” won a duel with Villalba in the 14th minute that started a sequence leading to the first of Alexander Mitrita’s three first-half goals.
“My feeling was he can play fullback,” Torrent said. “In the facilities when we make patterns for example — that happens every single week — sometimes Seb plays like a fullback. Today, he played there and he controlled Villalba and Meram.”
Meram entered the match with 15 minutes to play and his side trailing 3-1.
The left side of Atlanta’s attack was subdued in great part by the surprise starter at fullback.
“Today it was the first real, actual action at right back,” Ibeagha said. “But I mean, I didn’t feel too uncomfortable.”
Ibeagha had played as a center back in seven of NYCFC’s previous eight matches, starting twice. His five substitute appearances during that stretch ranged from one to 60 minutes.
“He works hard, he’s a good guy and it doesn’t matter if he has to play 10 minutes, 15 minutes, he’s always ready to play,” Torrent said. “I’m happy for these kind of players. Everybody talks about other players but how important it is for the coach to have players like Seb and like Ben [Sweat] that they are ready all the time.”
With regular central defender Maxime Chanot suspended for Sunday’s match at the New England Revolution and Tinnerholm doubtful, Ibeagha is likely to feature again — somewhere at the back.
“I have confidence that Seb can play fullback or center back,” Torrent said.