NEW YORK — Sebastien Ibeagha’s path to New York City FC has been an expedition.
How he arrived is an example of perseverance and belief.
Born in Nigeria and raised in Houston, Texas, the 26-year old Ibeagha has been a valuable member of the City back line during his rookie Major League Soccer season.
After four years at Duke University, Ibeagha was a Homegrown candidate for the Houston Dynamo, then led by head coach Dominic Kinnear and anchored by a starting centerback named Geoff Cameron — a mainstay with the United States men’s national team and veteran of the English Premier League.
“My agent didn’t think it would be a good fit at the time,” Ibeagha said. “I wouldn’t be able to push the envelope to get playing time. Honestly, I wasn’t there technically and tactically. The other guys were at a different level.”
Ibeagha’s search included a pair of trials in Denmark, where he landed in the top-tier Danish Superliga with AC Horsens. However, the coach was sacked in the middle of the season and the new manager sent Ibeagha out on loan in the same league to FC Fredericia.
“So I ended up playing against my team twice,” Ibeagha said. “It was weird, and there was a lot of emotion in that first game. I ended up scoring an own goal.”
Most importantly, the experience with the Danes helped Ibeagha focus on the specific needs for his development.
“Throughout college and afterward, a lot of coaches told me that I was already there physically,” the 6-foot-2 Ibeagha said. “It was about the thought put into the game and my technical ability. Those were the things the Danish league taught me. I learned a lot at that age and I keep those things with me today.”
The loan stint with Horsens extended to Reykjavik in Iceland for six months. Then it was back to Houston, where he signed a Homegrown deal. The loan journey continued with departures to Rio Grande Valley FC of the second-tier United Soccer League and former North American Soccer League side Rayo OKC.
When Houston declined to pick up Ibeagha’s option for 2017, he transplanted to San Antonio’s USL team – a New York City FC affiliate coached by Darren Powell.
“He told me, ‘I know you have the ability to play in MLS, but you’re not there yet,’” Ibeagha said. “He told me that year I just needed to focus and be consistent in everything I did. That’s what last year was for me — try to be consistent every game, play every game and play well.”
San Antonio was fortified at the back with Ibeagha and he was named the USL Defender of the Year.
NYCFC sporting director Claudio Reyna and former coach Patrick Vieira took notice, and the little known Ibeagha transferred to MLS less than a month before the 2018 preseason.
He arrived with realistic expectations.
“I know coming in I was probably seen as fourth (centerback) on the team sheet,” Ibeagha said.
Alexander Callens and Maxime Chanot were returning starters in central defense and Cédric Hountondji occupied an international spot. Hountondji was injured from the outset and never played a regular-season game.
Ibeagha said: “I think Patrick saw that when he was here — and [current coach] Dome[Torrent] has seen it, too –they have all the confidence in me to know that if Maxime or Alex is out, they are very comfortable putting me in there, knowing I’ll get the job done.”
Ibeagha received his first starting assignment in just the second match of the season, while Chanot served a red card suspension.
“Those injuries, as bad as they may be for that person, that is your chance to really show,” Ibeagha said. “Even if it doesn’t lead to you getting the starting job, it’s all about trust and the coach having confidence in you.”
The former First Team All-ACC performer looked comfortable in his first MLS start. He logged just 39 minutes over the next six matches, but an injury setback to Chanot placed Ibeagha in the starting XI in nine of the next 10 games.
For the moment, he had won the job from Chanot.
“A lot of things have happened in my favor this year, and I’m happy for it,” he said. “But also, I think I’ve worked hard for those chances and played to the best of my ability.”
Ibeagha has 26 appearances and 18 starts for New York City. He is among the myriad USL hopefuls who was fortunate to receive an opportunity and flourish at the proper moments.
“That’s the thing. A lot of USL players have in their mind, ‘We can make it up here,’” he said. “It’s all about getting your chance, but then also taking [advantage of] it.”
NYCFC teammate Ben Sweat was an example of that enduring quality in another second-tier league, the NASL with the Tampa Bay Rowdies. Ibeagha once teamed with the 27-year old Sweat on the U.S. Youth National Team Under-20s.
“That’s what Ben did in his own way,” Ibeagha said. “The roads to where we both came are kind of similar in a way – obviously, I’ve bounced around a little more.
“I’ve known Ben for awhile. I saw him two years ago at Tampa. He got picked up by New York City and played a lot of games and played well. I thought, ‘That is great for him.’”
Like Ibeagha, Sweat got his chance due to an injury when Ronald Matarrita went down early in the 2017 season. Sweat recently earned his first international call-up with the USMNT based off his MLS performances with the Cityzens. He gained his first cap in an October friendly against Colombia.
— Sebastien Ibeagha (@_sebibeagha_) October 12, 2018
“That’s kind of the way I want to go as well,” Ibeagha said, understanding he got a late start at the highest level.
“I think if I would have left college earlier and played in that [Houston] system, it would have benefited me more,” Ibeagha said. “I didn’t choose that route, so I had to play a little catch-up. I don’t regret having a Duke degree in my back pocket. The good thing about soccer is that you see late bloomers and it’s all about taking each year — taking what it gives you and going with that.”
Ibeagha now is waiting to see what his role might be in the final match of the regular season against Philadelphia and then in the playoffs – with an important decision on hair style ahead of him.
“If you look at my Instagram last year, I had braids at one point,” Ibeagha said. “I also had a huge Mohawk, it was almost like white. I always do crazy stuff with my hair. That’s the way I express myself. Now I’ve done so much stuff, I said, ‘I’m just going to cut it and think about what I want to do next and go from there.’”
BLONDED 💫 pic.twitter.com/vFkTE3WEW0
— New York City FC (@NYCFC) August 8, 2018