As co-captains of the Duke men’s soccer team, Sebastien Ibeagha and Sean Davis were practically inseparable.
They were different kind of leaders — Davis the cerebral motivator, Ibeagha the old school in-your-face center back. But they were on the “same wavelength” when it came to the Blue Devils and a shared goal of playing professional soccer.
Their routes couldn’t have been more different, but it has led them to here — opposite sides of the Hudson River Derby. Ibeagha still in blue with New York City FC, Davis proudly in red with the New York Red Bulls.
“We’ve come full circle,” Ibeagha told Pro Soccer USA. “It’s crazy how things happen.”
A year older, Ibeagha followed in his older brother Christian’s footsteps to Duke. There he started at center back immediately and held down that spot for four years. He was named ACC Defensive Player of the Year as a junior in 2012. As a senior, he was a third team All-American.
Ibeagha said the Blue Devils struggled his freshman year, but then Davis’ recruiting class changed things.
He spent his last year sharing the captain’s armband with Davis.
“We were pretty close. As co-captains we had to be close. We were always on the same wavelength, the same headspace on how to conduct the team,” Ibeagha said. “Being teammates for three years, you tend to grow similar tendencies. It’s always good to see him succeed. He’s always had the will and the talent to be where he is now.”
In Davis, a four-year starter in central midfield who earned ACC Midfielder of the Year honors as a senior in 2014, Duke had what Blue Devils coach John Kelly called a “natural-born leader.”
“He’s always been a guy who takes soccer seriously,” Kelly said. “He is a guy that takes leadership seriously and how to conduct yourself seriously. He understands being an example is very important and how you live and conduct yourself. He’s the epitome of what every coach dreams up.”
Meanwhile Ibeagha, who rarely stepped off the field in his 70 career starts was that calming influence out of the back.
“His communication skills are great, his commitment level to the game and to his team’s cause is what exemplifies him as being a captain,” Kelly said. “He is not afraid of anything and he’s the kind of guy you go, ‘Man OK, if he’s on my team, We’re good.’”
Following his senior year, Ibeagha signed with with Danish club Horsens in Jan. 2014. He spent two years there, which included loan stints to Fredericia in Denmark and Fram Reykjavik in Iceland.
From there, he returned to the U.S. and signed with the Houston Dynamo in Jan. 2016, but was unable to break into the lineup and was sent to the club’s USL affiliate, Rio Grande Valley FC Toros, on loan.
Another loan followed, this to Rayo OKC that July, helping lead the team to the NASL playoffs.
He was signed by San Antonio FC in Feb. 2017, where he featured in 30 matches and earned USL Defender of the Year honors. Ibeagha joined NYCFC for preseason and impressed enough to earn a contract in Feb. 2018.
“New York City FC is lucky to have him. He’s a great player, but more importantly, is great for the locker room,” Davis said. “I know that he brings a lot to their team. I know he’s great for their culture, nothing but good things to say about him.”
Davis’ road to the New York Red Bulls was a bit more direct. He rose through the ranks, from the fertile grounds of the club’s academy, to the U-23 team and, after immediately after his senior season at Duke, signed a Homegrown contract with the Red Bulls, where he’s been an integral part of the club’s midfield for the last three years.
“He’s a really good player, was offered a Homegrown contract and he definitely deserved it,” Ibeagha said. “In college he was top class and he did his thing for years. Now, he’s pretty much playing every game.”
The two aren’t as close as they once were, but they remain in touch when possible, each hoping the other succeeds. It’s usually by way of a simple “congratulations” or “I saw you balling out,” text, Ibeagha said.
But the lines of communication are severed leading up to the Hudson River Derby.
“Sometimes we talk, but we won’t talk this week,” Davis said. “We’ll always catch up after the games, when things cool down a little bit. But we’ll always find time to catch up for sure, just picking the right moment, obviously.”
Ibeagha is hoping a jersey swap with his former co-captain is in the future. He thought about it a year ago, but was too upset after a 4-0 loss at Red Bull Arena last May.
“Hopefully we get a better result this weekend and I’ll definitely do that,” he said.
While both are ultra-competitive players who will do anything to help their teams win, they aren’t exactly hated enemies come Sunday evening.
“I want them to get scored on, but I don’t want it to be his fault at all,” Davis said. “I want him to be diving and clearing things off the line, but eventually the ball trickles over the line to no fault of his own.”
Ibeagha appreciates that, but he’d rather not concede a goal. However, he’s fine with Davis possessing the ball out of midfield, having a high passing percentage and winning his share of duels.
“He can do all of that,” Ibeagha said. “As long as they don’t score, I’d be happy with that.”
While the fans who pack Red Bull Arena Sunday will be divided by color, back in North Carolina, Kelly will be on the couch rooting for both of his former captains.
“I’m tuning in for sure,” said Kelly, who also coached Red Bulls forward Brian White. “I hope is a low-scoring draw. It will suit both of them.”
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