On Jan 28, the Columbus Crew made one of the team’s offseason additions, signing central midfielder James Igbekeme to a 2022 season loan. At the time, the signing looked like a way to fill out the Black & Gold’s midfield depth. At that point, midfielder Artur’s return from a 2021 hip injury was still up in the air.
Even so, at the time of signing, Igbekeme’s addition was a blip on the radar of the preseason. His announcement came 18 days after the Crew introduced winger Yaw Yeboah to fill the boots of Pedro Santos, who moved to the fullback position. Signing a mostly unknown player in the United States always piques interest, but Igbekeme’s signing wasn’t thought of as a big impact signing.
Now Igbekeme’s place on the roster has changed.
“Right now he’s in our top 11,” said head coach Caleb Porter of Igbekeme. “We’re playing him in a way and we’ll continue to play him in a way where it suits him, suits the game and suits our team.”
There are many ways that Igbekeme suits the team. The 5-foot-6 midfielder brings strength both, offensively and defensively, which is not normal for most attack-minded players on the wings and in the attacking midfield.
Igbekeme’s first example of defensive prowess came in the 1-1 draw against the New York Red Bulls in late March where Columbus allowed a late set piece goal, midfielder Lucas Zelarayán went down with a knee injury and midfielder Darlington Nagbe scored a goal at the death to earn the Crew a road point. What doesn’t get a lot of attention is the start of the Black & Gold’s goal in the match’s last gasp came from Igbekeme, who started the counter with a tackle in stoppage time. That gave Columbus possession for Santos, winger Luís Diaz and fullback Steven Moreira to move the ball down the field and score.
That was the last match that the Crew earned a point before the team’s three-match losing streak. In the final match of the three, when the Black & Gold trailed by two, it was Igbekeme that Porter turned to for a chance to score in the final 31 minutes of the match.
Igbekeme created three shot opportunities for his teammates and took a shot of his own in a 30-minute substitute appearance off the bench against Orlando City SC in mid-April. Porter started Igbekeme three days later in the U.S. Open Cup, where the midfielder’s small moments finally had the chance to get a long form view. When the Black & Gold attacked, it was Igbekeme that ran the ball down the field.
Entering Saturday’s match against New York City FC, it’s been Igbekeme that’s given Columbus different looks. The Nigerian started the last three games and while he hasn’t scored a goal or added an assist, he’s done something vital for the team.
“He’s a quiet guy but there’s a quiet confidence to him,” said center back Josh Williams of Igbekeme. “You can tell that as soon as he touches the ball and I think that just allows that trust in a guy.”
With only three starts in six regular season matches, Igbekeme’s teammates already trust him. When he gets the ball, the midfielder finds space, holds possession and moves the ball and the team closer to the goal. Igbekeme’s versatility makes it hard to see him losing his spot in the starting lineup.
So far this year, Porter has started Igbekeme as a winger in a 4-3-3 formation, but the midfielder doesn’t stay wide. He reads the field and moves to where the situation calls for him. It’s his knowledge of the game, and what’s happening on the field, that allows Igbekeme’s flexibility in that role.
In his three starts, Igbekeme has played both left and right winger positions. Against Sporting Kansas City, while the Crew played further back to exploit Sporting’s weakness against the counter, Igbekeme intercepted seven Kansas City passes. A week later, against D.C. United, Igbekeme had a goal-creating chance and five shot-creating chances.
Saturday, Igbekeme had one tough moment on defense when the New England Revolution tied the match in the 70th minute, falling asleep on fullback DeJuan Jones and allowing him to score the first of New England’s two goals on the night. Outside of that moment, Igbekeme still applied pressure on defense to the tune of two tackles and two interceptions for a player in an offensive position.
As the Crew shifts to defense, Igbekeme’s been strong. When the Black & Gold has scored goals lately, it has been Igbekeme helping propel the offense. With the frustration of three losses in a row, Columbus needed a spark and Igbekeme has been that.
“When he gets the ball, we know it’s going to stick,” said Nagbe. “It gives the team an opportunity to breathe, our opportunity to get up there and get up the whole team and attack, not just the attacking guys but the whole team can get it when he gets the ball.”