After being bothered by a calf injury during the earlier stages of preseason, FC Dallas center back Ugo Ihemelu returned to the practice field several weeks back and made his preseason game debut during the club’s recent trip to Cancun, Mexico.
The SMU product also played a half in Wednesday’s 4-0 win over his alma mater, the Mustangs, at a place he used to call home, Westcott Field. It was his third preseason game so far and he admits he’s feeling better and better with each passing day.
“Yeah, I think I’ve got a little bit more. Felt a little bit better playing this half fitness wise than I did the previous two,” Ihemelu said after the win over the Ponies. “Just getting that first wind and I got the first wind, after that I was feeling pretty good. I wasn’t really feeling the calf at all. It’s on the right track.”
Dallas head coach Schellas Hyndman offered a positive appraisal of how his starting center back performed in his 45 minutes of action against his alma mater.
“I thought Ugo was fine. I think he tripped up on the ball once and I think that’s again because of the slipperiness of the ball and the wet field,” Hyndman said. “I thought he did well.”
The veteran central defender comes off a 2011 season where he played 31 games, 30 of which as a starter, and had two goals and two assists. The aforementioned calf injury was a byproduct of a sports hernia he had in the past and he admits he sat out the early stages of preseason more as a precaution than anything.
“Yeah, I strained it during the off-season, so they were giving me time to get it healthy again since it’s preseason,” Ihemelu said. “Just a precaution with the sports hernia that I had just to make sure it didn’t flare back up.”
And in his three games thus far in preseason, he has mostly been paired up with newcomer Hernan Pertuz, an off-season addition brought in to help bolster FCD’s backline and color him impressed with what he’s seen from his new teammate thus far.
“He’s a really good player. He’s really composed on the ball and he’s tough in the tackle. He reads the game well,” Ihemelu said. “The only thing there is we just have to get that understanding of each other. There’s a little language barrier, but I know the basics of Spanish and he’s picking up the basics of English. Soccer’s game that you really don’t need language in. Once you get that understanding and time playing with each other, it becomes natural and many words aren’t really needed except for the basics.”
The veteran defender has also logged minutes alongside rookie Matt Hedges, FCD’s first-round pick in the 2012 MLS Super Draft and he’s quite impressed with what the ex-Tar Heel has brought to the pitch thus far.
“I think he’s a good center back. I think he was a really good signing by the club, a really talented guy. Hedges is a good, young and he’s hungry,” Ihemelu said. “He’s really competitive. Just like George, he’s really competitive. He’s just willing to learn and he’s a good soccer player. I think he’s got a lot of potential.”
But the one question on everyone’s mind when it comes to the Dallas defense is whether or not fellow starting center back George John will be in the first 11 alongside Ihemelu when FCD opens the season on March 11 against New York. John has been on loan to English second-division side West Ham United and hasn’t been getting a ton of playing time, making it likely he could return to MLS once his loan is over in March.
“I don’t know [if he’ll be back or not],” Ihemelu said. “The team’s doing really well there, so if they get promoted, they’ll have even more money and he’s a really good defender. Anything can happen to be completely honest. I don’t know.”
He and John have been a rock-solid tandem in the middle of the central defense for Dallas over the last two-plus seasons now and it’s a combination this savvy veteran would like to see continue in the near future.
“There was that comfort because we understood how each other played. He understood my weaknesses and I understood his. We just communicated really well. It was two-plus years of playing with each other. We spoke the same language and we hung out. We were roommates on the road. So there was definitely that connection there,” Ihemelu said. “[Pertuz] is a really good player and I think this year defensively, we’re pretty solid. If George does come back, it’s going to be really competitive.”