FRISCO, Texas – When FC Dallas’ team captain Daniel Hernandez went down with a knee injury, head coach Schellas Hyndman handed the sleeve over to veteran defender Ugo Ihemelu.
It’s just another opportunity Ihemelu has seized under Hyndman, who described Ihemelu as one of his favorite players of all-time. Quite the claim for a 28-year-old center back, but Hyndman would know best. After all, if it weren’t for Hyndman, Ihemelu might not have played collegiate soccer, let alone Major League Soccer.
Ihemelu received a number of letters to play collegiate soccer during his time at Cedar Hill High School, including one from Hyndman during his time as a head coach for Southern Methodist University, but he never responded out of laziness. Ihemelu figured his playing days were over despite receiving a number of accolades, including three All-District selections.
With the help of his high school coach, he broke out of the lethargic mindset and scrambled to find a school. Hyndman watched Ihemelu play a club match and offered a walk-on position in 2001.
“It usually doesn’t happen like that,” Ihemelu laughed.
The team was already ranked as one of the best in the country before Ihemelu arrived, but he caught his break when a senior broke his foot, giving him the chance to start and flourish thereafter. Ihemelu was a three-time all-Missouri Valley Conference selection and named as an All-American during his time for the Mustangs.
“He’s continued to develop,” Hyndman said. “When I took the job here, he was one of the players I wanted to get here. He was with Colorado and it finally worked out.”
Ihemelu and Hyndman reunited last season with FC Dallas and rekindled the bond they established at SMU. Although Ihemelu already won a MLS Cup his rookie year with the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2005, he desperately wanted to another one for his coach.
After the crushing 2-1 defeat to the Colorado Rapids in the 2010 MLS Cup final, Ihemelu hugged Hyndman and apologized for the match’s result.
“I really wanted to win that game and I thought we were the better team and I thought we deserved to win that game,” Ihemelu said. “It’s something that he deserves. He’s been in soccer for a long time, he’s really successful at what he’s done and it's just the way I repay him for giving me the opportunity my freshman year and bringing me back to Dallas.”
Hyndman feels Ihemelu’s reaction was an epitome of his unselfish character, which is why Hyndman relies heavily on Ihemelu to be a team leader. Ihemelu isn’t a vocal person like Hernandez on the field, but his method to guide his teammates have proved to be just as effective.
Ihemelu has relied on his charisma and the team unity built from FC Dallas’ magical run last season to positively motivate his teammates. Ihemelu at times goes out to dinner with players to talk in a causal setting away from a field, hoping they’d pay for his meal, Ihemelu joked.
“If I do happen to get on to somebody, they don’t take it personally,” Ihemelu said. “They know it’s just a moment thing because I want the best out of them.”
The players -- along with Hyndman -- have praised Ihemelu’s leadership effort during Hernandez’s absence. His efforts on the field have also picked up after a slow start to the season.
Ihemelu underwent surgery to repair a sports hernia and missed the preseason. His season, as FC Dallas', started off a bit shaky. The club was 2-1-3 through April. Once everyone was able to get on the right page, FCD's record climbed to 8-3-2 in the regular season and the club went on to win both of their U.S. Open Cup matches soaring to third in the Western Conference as we approach the All-Star break.
Though he gives the credit to goalkeeper Kevin Hartman for FC Dallas’ nine shutouts and Hyndman for the chemistry on the team, Ihemelu's two goals this season are a career high. Ihemelu’s 9.06 Castrol Index ranking is seventh best in the league. He’s in the top 10 with fellow center back George John, who Hyndman considers two of the best center backs in the league this year.
“I look up to him, he’s definitely taught me a lot at the center back position,” John said. “I think that’s a role for him. He’s a leader on the team and he proves himself in the league and just a great guy to have on the team.”
Due to their 10-year relationship, Ihemelu’s values Hyndman’s honesty and guidance. Hyndman and the club have been pleased by the veteran’s performance in a Red Stripes uniform, which is why FC Dallas recently locked Ihemelu up through 2015 -- an omen that Ihemelu’s development has surpassed his expectations.
“I don’t think he ever thought one day I’ll be playing for a national championship with SMU or one day I’ll be winning an MLS Cup playing professional soccer or getting called into the national team,” Hyndman said. “…He’s so humble, so mature and he’s been fantastic for us."