Photo by Andy Mead/ Yellow Card Journalism
Ibeagha, seen in a game during his senior season.
On Tuesday, Sebastien Ibeagha turned 22 years old. The same day, Major League Soccer concluded its 2014 SuperDraft of rising amateur talent. Ibeagha, a regular fixture in the U.S. youth national soccer setup since his teenage years, the 2012 ACC Defensive Player of the Year and a two-time college All-American as a defender for Duke University, wasn’t part of the selection process.
In fact, as the draft wound down two days ago, Ibeagha (pronounced ibby-AH-ga) was spending his birthday 3,800 miles away in Aalborg, a city situated near the northern tip of Denmark. There, Ibeagha is training with Aalborg BK (aka AaB Fodbold), a top-flight team in the Danish Superliga. He expects to play in his first preseason matches this weekend, in hopes of eventually showing well enough to merit a professional contract offer.
Ibeagha could already have a professional contract. Indeed, he could have signed a contract with MLS three years ago. Triangle Offense
spoke with him by telephone on Tuesday, to discover the reasons this blue chip college talent decided to eschew MLS for the wintry pitches of northern Denmark.
Born in Warri, Nigeria, Ibeagha and his family moved to America in 2001 when he was 9 years old. Ibeagha and his older brother, Christian, were steered along their soccer path by their father, Christian Sr., who played soccer at the University of Nigeria.
Both Sebastien and Christian developed into soccer prodigies. Christian took part in the U.S. soccer residency program in 2006 and 2007, and he enrolled at Duke in 2007. Meanwhile, Sebastien began appearing as a U.S. youth international beginning with the U-15 national team in 2007. Sebastien also joined the Houston Dynamo academy program during his prep years, and by 2009 he was training regularly with the Dynamo first team. Indeed, he was the 2009 Dynamo Academy Player of the Year.
That time spent with the Dynamo academy also enabled Houston to place Ibeagha on their homegrown player identification list. A still burgeoning arrangement in MLS, the homegrown player program allows teams to sign young players who train in that team’s developmental player academy to professional contracts, even before their college eligibility expires. However, the homegrown player rules also allow those teams to claim and hold the MLS rights to "protected players." Thus, no other MLS team can sign a protected homegrown player.
In 2010, Ibeagha also enrolled at Duke, the same year his brother was the team’s senior captain. However, Christian suffered a season-ending injury five games into the season. After graduation, Christian sought to break into MLS, and his subsequent tribulations opened Sebastien’s eyes.
Photo by Andy Mead/ Yellow Card Journalism
Ibeagha wins the ball over UNC's Andy Craven during an ACC Tournament quarterfinal in November 2012.
“[Christian] got an agent and left Duke, went on trial a couple places, and then got a contract with FC Dallas,” Ibeagha recalls. “He was there for three months or so, then they cut him because with MLS contracts you can get cut at any time. He bounced from team to team—went to New England, went to Philly, went back to FC Dallas. Nothing worked out. So, he was just sitting around for months and was very frustrated. He got a new agent and [eventually] went overseas, got signed and now he’s there. Watching him bounce around, I could see he wasn’t happy and I wasn’t happy for him. I didn’t really like that about MLS.”
As Ibeagha's college career progressed, he also appeared regularly with the U.S. U-20 and U-23 youth national teams. And each offseason, Houston offered him a homegrown contract to join their team.
“The past three years when I was offered contracts [by MLS] they were really good contracts,” Ibeagha says. “The main reason I didn’t go is because I was in school and my parents highly value education.”
Ibeagha says the best offer came after his sophomore season at Duke. Houston extended a homegrown contract, but with elements of a Generation Adidas contract tacked on, including a higher salary and funds to finish his college education at Rice University.
Ibeagha nearly made the jump to MLS that year, until his father sat him down.
“The way my dad looked at it was that I went to Duke, which costs roughly $200,000 [to attend],” Ibeagha explains. “So, if you’re going to leave somewhere you’re getting everything paid at that amount to play professionally where you’re getting paid less than that, then you’re losing out. That’s how my dad made me understand. At first, I was mad, I wanted to leave. But, he showed it to me that way, and it made sense.”
It was after Ibeagha's All-American junior season at Duke that he turned down Houston’s homegrown offer for a third time. That’s also when the idea of plying his professional trade in Europe began to creep into his mind.
“I guess I knew I was going to try Europe after I turned down that offer my junior year,” Ibeagha explains, “because I feel like if I was going to MLS, that would have been the best year to do it, both contract-wise and soccer-wise. I was still young enough where I would get Generation Adidas and still be able to go to school.”
Indeed, Ibeagha says he didn’t have any direct communication with Houston or MLS again after December 2012.
“I think they kind of knew what my route was, especially after my junior year,” he continues. “After I decided to stay then, I think they knew I was going to try Europe first.”
Concrete discussions about a possible European move began last August and continued throughout Ibeagha's senior season. Beyond his own interest, Ibeagha says his father always wanted him to play overseas.
“Then once I started talking to different agencies to possibly represent me, they asked where I wanted to play,” Ibeagha continues. “I began to think of overseas leagues where I might actually get a chance to play, like Denmark, Belgium, France, those types of places. Eventually, I signed with James Grant [Group, a management agency] after my senior season, and they just spelled it out. I thought it was perfect.”
Beyond Ibeagha's desire to scratch his European itch, there are other factors that soured him on signing with MLS even after his college eligibility ended. One is the term of initial MLS player contracts, which are three year deals plus two league option years. Thus, MLS could tie down a young player’s rights for up to five years.
Another was his experience traversing the vagaries of the homegrown program, particularly its shifting rules regarding Houston’s claim on his MLS rights.
“When I was a sophomore [at Duke], the rule was if you don’t maintain contact with your academy team for two years, you lose your label as a homegrown player,” Ibeagha explains. “So, my freshman year I played with Houston, but I didn’t my sophomore and junior years. So, based on that rule, I shouldn’t have been a homegrown by Christmas 2012. But, MLS said I was still a homegrown.”
Although Ibeagha concedes Houston’s contract offers to him were competitive as compared to other homegrown player contracts, being tied to the Dynamo meant joining a team where he stood little chance of significant first-team playing time for the foreseeable future.
“Honestly, in MLS young players don’t play as much unless you’re very lucky, especially as a defender," he says. “To break into a back four is very hard, especially at Houston, which has a lot of very good center backs.”
According to Ibeagha, Houston’s homegrown claim over him extended beyond his college eligibility, meaning he didn’t have the option to enter the SuperDraft even if he wanted to. Indeed, he still has no idea how long Houston’s claim over him lasts.
“What I don’t understand is how you can say a team has rights to a player when that player didn’t sign a contract or anything else,” Ibeagha says. “That’s the thing I just don’t get about it. I get what the whole homegrown system is trying to do, and I applaud it. There are definitely young players who get out and do well and have great careers.
"But, I feel like it’s weird how your rights are just taken by a team but the only basis is that you played for their academy team for a certain amount of years. I’m 17 or 18 years old, I’m not seeing that far ahead. I’m trying to get in college first. If I develop quicker and I’m good enough, then I’ll think about that. I just don’t really know how they can do that.”
Today, Ibeagha's parents live in Ghana, where his father works as an oilfield services manager for Schlumberger, a global oil and gas technology supplier. His brother signed last October to play soccer for Bohemians 1905, a first-division club in the Czech Republic.
And armed with ambition and his A.B. Degree in Earth and Ocean Sciences from Duke, Ibeagha's focus has shifted from the path not taken to the one in front of him.
“Now I just want to play in Europe,” he says. “It’s a great opportunity for a young player to develop here, because as we know soccer isn’t the biggest sport in America, but in all these other countries it is. If you become pretty good, then bigger clubs will see you and bigger clubs will want you, and your career progresses on from there.”
Still, as Ibeagha recites his reasoning, one can't help remembering the hopes of other American prospects, such as Billy Schuler, the UNC star who recently returned to the U.S. after a two-year stint in Sweden
. Marcus Tracy, the Wake Forest product and 2008 Hermann Trophy winner, spent three injury-riddled years with Aalborg BK before returning to the San Jose Earthquakes of MLS in 2012
. And then there's the well-known tale of Gale Agbossoumonde, another former U.S. youth international defender who rejected MLS for a possible career in Europe. Gale’s time overseas became an unfulfilled, nomadic odyssey
that concluded with him returning to MLS and signing last year with Toronto FC.
Ibeagha says he doesn’t see Agbossoumonde—who is a friend of both Ibeagha brothers—as a cautionary tale.
“[Gale] didn’t play as much as he probably wanted to, but he was still with those clubs and it was good experience for him as a young player,” Ibeagha counters. “It’s better for it to happen when you’re 21 or 22 than when you’re 29 or 30.
“Looking at one player’s misfortune doesn’t generalize every player,” he continues. “Yes, there are some players along the way who don’t do as well as they want to. At the end of the day, playing in Europe is a dream for a lot of players, including me. So, until I either fulfill it or fail at it, I want to pursue it. If I do fail, I’ll work my way back up again.”