BRIAN SCIARETTA - Tuesday, June 28, 2011
With the 2011 Gold Cup now in the history books, the next major tournament ahead for the United States is qualification for 2012 Olympic Games which will showcase many of the top US U23 players.
While technically a youth tournament, the Olympic games have historically been very important to the United States because many of the US team's top players are quickly assimilated into the national team.
In 2008, Stuart Holden, Charlie Davies, Benny Feilhaber, Sacha Kljestan, Michael Bradley, Maurice Edu, and Jozy Altidore used the tournament to springboard into becoming regulars with the national team. In 2000 it was Landon Donovan, John O'Brien, Josh Wolff and Tim Howard who quickly rose through the US ranks following the Sydney Games.
The United States will host the 2012 CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament next spring and one of the players who hopes to be a key part of the team's backline is Duke University and Houston Dynamo Academy central defender Sebastien Ibeagha.
Ibeagha, 19, has spent a significant time with the US youth national teams this past year and the most recent appearance was a trip to France where the US U-20 national team played two games against France who are expected to be one of the favorites at this summer's U-20 World Cup.
The US drew the first game 3-3 and lost the second game 2-1 playing under head coach Tab Ramos who was coaching for those two games after previous head coach Thomas Rongen parted ways with the program.
It was the first action for the US U20 team since they failed to qualify for the World Cup in March and the team in France consisted of some young players who will play in the 2013 cycle as well as some players like Ibeagha who are too old for 2013 but look to be a part of the Olympic team.
"Playing under Tab, I loved it," Ibeagha recalled to YA of the trip. "Coach Rongen was a great coach too but Tab Ramos is different. He's a lot more laid back. I think that for the new guys we have and all the younger players that came in, we played well. The scores don't show it. I think we played very well for a new group of guys. With the new players, there's a lot of talent."
Ibeagha's performance was strong enough that he was invited by US head coach Bob Bradley to train with senior team in North Carolina as they prepared for the Gold Cup. Since many of the team's central defenders were late to arrive due to club commitments, Ibeagha was asked to fill the void.
Ibeagha admitted to being shocked by the invitation but felt that the experience was great and it gave him a better idea of how to take his game to the next level.
"I think it went well," Ibeagha said of playing for the USMNT. "It was totally different jumping from the U20s to [the senior team] but I think I played okay. It was a good experience for me to have. It's pretty much what I expected. I came from the Houston Dynamo academy and I trained with their first team. So I pretty much knew how it would be but to actually be in that environment was a big step."
"It showed me that I really do need to get better at certain things," he added. "It was really good for me to have this happen now. I have a real goal to set for myself and it is an attainable goal. Now I see where I have to go to get to that level."
US national team assistant coach Mike Sorber was on hand to watch Ibeagha both with the US national team and on the U20 trip to France. He felt that Ibeagha has some weaknesses to address but does have very positive qualities to become an effective player.
"On the trip to France I thought he did well," Sorber assessed. "But I though he did a good job of stepping up and really competing. He helped lead us and really organize some things in the back. Now when he steps in here into this environment [with the senior national team] it's a few levels higher but you see some good qualities that he has. You see some good starting points and you also see some of the weaknesses that he has get exposed. That's natural and normal with a young kid."
The next step for Ibeagha will be to turn professional and that is an issue that remains heavily on his mind. Playing either in MLS or abroad both remain real possibilities for him and his on-field success this year have made it so that he wants to turn professional as soon as possible.
The chances are that he will return to Duke for his sophomore season but even that remains a little uncertain.
"I think every player that wants to go pro wants to get there as early as they can," Ibeagha discussed. "Playing with Houston Dynamo before college for two years, training with their first team, training with the US national team and the U-20s, makes me think about it a lot more and leaving early. It had an impact on my mind to want to go pro at the earliest I can. I'll probably be at Duke for sure this upcoming season but again, no one really knows. I don't really know. It's kind of up in the air."
Born in Warri, Nigeria, Ibeagha is anxious to return to the international stage again for the United States and his next opportunity could be with the Olympic qualifying team.
The next year will certainly be a transformative one for Ibeagha both professionally and internationally. He will likely be faced with questions of when to turn professional and whether or not to begin that part of his career abroad or at home. On the international front, the Olympics weigh heavily on his mind.
"I am thinking about the Olympic team already," Ibeagha concluded. "It's what all of the players in the previous cycle are thinking about because it is the next step and to make that squad would be a huge accomplishment. I feel that if I'm not already thinking about it now, then if that time did present itself I would be at a disadvantage by not preparing myself properly. My goal at this point is to play and play well enough to get me into that pool of players. Also the Olympics is such a big stage that to not think about it now is difficult."