It wasn’t hard to pick the man of the match in New York City FC’s pivotal victory over Atlanta United on Wednesday.
After his first-half hat trick, Alexandru Mitrita was an obvious chose for those inclined to make such selections. But the next most important player in NYCFC’s 4-1 win at Yankee Stadium may have been the guy playing out of position on the back line.
Sebastien Ibeagha was slotted at right back for City’s regular-season home finale in place of Anton Tinnnerholm, who suffered a concussion against FC Dallas last Sunday, and for a centerback unfamiliar with the position, Ibeagha was more than suitable in the new role.
“There have been a couple discussions about it. I’ve played it in training before. In possession drills and stuff I’ve played out wide at right back,” Ibeagha said. “So, there have been little discussions, never anything too serious, but [Wednesday] was just one of those days where Anton was out so I’m going to have to step in and that’s pretty much it.”
Ibeagha stepped up big-time on NYCFC’s first goal of the night. Squaring up against winger Hector Villalba, the 27-year-old gained possession from the attacker near midfield as the visitors were looking to break. Ibeagha found an outlet, and Mitrita soon after scored the opener to set the tone.
“Villalba is a great player. He tried to take me on 1-v-1, I just kind of stood my ground, won the ball, released Ismael [Tajouri-Shradi], who then played a great ball to Mitri. Then Mitri does what he does,” Ibeagha said. “It was a great play from start to finish and I’m just happy to be a part of it.”
NYCFC coach Domènec Torrent couldn’t be happier with how the decision turned out, praising Ibeagha’s ability to step up on demand and for his work during training, which gave the Spaniard confidence to fulfill the role.
“I’m happy for Seb because he deserve it, to play every single day because in the facilities he’s amazing,” Torrent said. “Every single day, the work is very hard for Seb. He’s a good guy.”
Ibeagha has played entirely at his natural position this season, playing either on the side of a back three or in a centerback pairing, and transferred his defensive skills to the outside well. But fullback is far from just a defensive role for NYCFC, requiring the defenders on the outside to help advance the ball as the team plays out of the back, as well as provide crosses from the wing.
Should Tinnerholm remain out of action, Ibeagha is confident he will improve going forward.
“I think I only made one overlapping run today, so that’s something I will need to get better at, I guess, from that position. But at the end of the day, it’s defend first, that’s kind of the mentality I have as a right back as well as a centerback, it’s always defend first and from there just keep pushing your game.”