BRIAN SCIARETTA - Tuesday, March 25, 2014
After a standout collegiate career at Duke University, Sebastien Ibeagha is finally a professional and has already made his debut with AC Horsens in Denmark.
Ibeagha, 22, was widely considered to be one of the most professional ready players in the NCAA last season. He was eligible to sign a homegrown contract with the Houston Dynamo but he rejected that option to pursue opportunities in Europe.
"To me it was a pretty tough decision because I actually liked Houston," Ibeagha told YA. "I lived there for two years, I played in the academy, and I actually got to train with the first team. I like coach Kinnear and I like the whole stay. For me it was tough to go away from that because it's sort of a comfort zone for me."
In January, Ibeagha began training with Fulham in the Premier League before moving to Denmark on a trial with Aalborg BK which is currently in second place in the Superliga. Ibeagha played well in a pair of friendlies while on trial but was not offered a contract with the club satisfied with its current defenders.
He immediately moved onto AC Horsens and was offered a contract soon after his arrival.
"He has left a very good impression," Horsens head coach Johnny Molby said on the club's website after Ibeagha signed. "He is a young, exciting and physically strong player who among other things has made his name with a quiet game [on the] ball. He has a good potential that we need to work to redeem, and his approach means that we are less vulnerable and have an even better competition for positions in defense. He must of course learn our defense game, because it's different than he has been accustomed to, but we'll teach him."
Ibeagha admits that it has been a learning experience transitioning from college to an immediate professional starter but it is one he is capable of handling. Physically gifted, Ibeagha's challenges are now adapting to the tactically sophisticated players in Demark.
"The quickness of play and reading the game and getting used to it - it just like any college player going to MLS," Ibeagha said. "It's getting adjust to that and the quickness of other players and the quickness of how the ball is moving. As a defender, it's more of how much smarter the forwards think. In college, it's very rare to find a very good forward who plays on your blind side the whole time and makes hard runs to make you think."
So why the second tier of the Danish Superliga? Ibeagha said there were many factors that weighed in his decision. First, it was an opportunity for him to start right away. Second, Horsens is usually in the Superliga and currently sits in second place in the First Division with the top two teams earning promotion. So if Horsens plays well the rest of the season, it could be back in the top flight this summer.
Finally, Horsens is in the semifinals of the Danish Cup and has an opportunity to qualify for the early stages of the Europa league with a successful run in the club. On Thursday, Ibeagha and Horsens will host Aalborg in the first leg of the semifinal round. This game will come on the heels of a 0-0 draw in the league against Vejle - its first game after the winter break and Ibeagha's professional debut.
There were indeed a number of factors that played into Ibeagha's decision but pull of being in Europe was the prevailing reason. He has a healthy respect for soccer in the United States but wanted to begin a climb within the ranks of Europe sooner than later.
"As a four year senior, you're not as young as you would want to be to come out," Ibeagha explained. "I came out at 22 and I wanted to be in an environment where I could play and at the same time develop. Also, while I'm developing, I could have some exposure to bigger teams in Europe. That is kind of the thought process of why I ended up here. It is kind of setting up a profile, obviously, if you play well. If you perform at a high level, teams will surely take note of you."
"In the States, I think soccer is becoming as serious as it is here," he added. "It's not the biggest grossing sport like it is here. Its popularity it has risen a lot. That didn't change my outlook on going to Europe."
The history of Americans overseas has seen many young players struggle to adapt to different cultures and ways of life. Ibeagha is different, however, and has a background that has exposed him to many different ways of life.
Born in Nigeria, Ibeagha moved frequently as a child with his father holding a job in the oil industry. At the age of two, he moved with his family moved to Livingston, Scotland. A few years later he moved back to Africa but this time in the Ivory Coast and then again back to Nigeria. Finally, in 2001 the family moved to Oklahoma before settling in Texas in 2008.
During the whole time of moving during his childhood, Ibeagha began to develop into a strong soccer player and followed in his father's footsteps who played at the University of Nigeria. Sebastien obtained his American citizenship at the age of 18 and was almost immediately brought into the US U-20 team by head coach Thomas Rongen and even captained the team in a friendly win over Canada.
The national team is still a ways off for Ibeagha as he just begins his career but he remains hopeful that in the years ahead, a European career can lead to an appearance for the United States where the central defense position is thin.
"I'm hoping that if I play very well in the Superliga and maybe move to another country and a better league," Ibeagha said. "Hopefully my rank goes up for the national team. That's a big goal in my eyes to be on the national team."