When Gerhard Struber arrived in New York in late 2020, the Austrian with a long history in the Red Bull soccer apparatus began assembling a staff of heavily-credentialed coaching prodigies from across the globe. Recruits such as Bernd Eibler, a video study expert younger than some of the players, and Jyri Niemenen, a goalkeeping guru with experience on four continents, were brought in as the New York Red Bulls set forward on their most outward-looking technical project to date. But in a unique turn of events, Struber found room for a member of the 2013 Supporters Shield squad to join his otherwise-imported first team bench.
“I didn’t know that I was going to be with the first team,” said Ibrahim Sekagya over the phone following a training session in Hanover Township.
“I knew Gerhard from Red Bull over the years as someone who was in the organization in Salzburg, but when I saw he was coming over here I didn’t know this was going to happen. When he got here and he saw how I worked and the things I focused on, he decided that he wanted me closer to him and the players.”
There isn’t much that a professional player will face in the game that the now 40-year-old Sekagya won’t have at least some advice on. In a harrowing career spanning four continents, the former center back known affectionately around the club as Ibra led Uganda into World Cup qualifiers, played in front of some of Argentina’s most intimidating crowds, and scored goals in the Europa League for Salzburg before helping New York to their first silverware in 2013.
After two seasons with Mike Petke’s Red Bulls, the former Uganda international retired during the 2015 preseason under Jesse Marsch to accept a role as an assistant coach with the club’s new professional-level reserve team in USL, Red Bulls II. After five years with John Wolyniec in which the duo progressed several standouts to first team level and beyond as well as won a league title in 2016, Sekagya is now a full-time member of the first team staff under Struber, helping the team meet the complex defensive demands of the Austrian’s tactics.
“I played in the Red Bull system before I coached it, I know what the demands are physically, tactically and think he knows that experience is important. I focus on how we move the backline, how to press and check the ball before getting back into their position, how to approach the ball on rest defense situations.”
Sekagya’s dream fit for Struber’s needs continues with his work as a translator for the broad influx of Spanish and Portuguese-speaking players to the Red Bulls first team over recent seasons. With recently-arrived signings such as Fábio and Wikelman Carmona playing such a key role in a complex system before developing English skills, Sekagya’s ability to transmit Struber’s messages has been crucial.
“Yeah, that was one of the reasons (Struber) brought me in to be with the first team. He gives me the freedom to communicate with players so they can be closer to him. It’s important in his approach to have one-on-one conversations with people and I can provide that for many of the Spanish and Portuguese-speaking players who are now in the team.”
That group of players will grow in the coming weeks as the club onboards new signing Lucas Monzón from Danubio, and Sekagya confirmed that he will likely play a key role in adjusting the Uruguayan to MLS, remarking “he’s a player who has the tools we need” but that it was also important to see how he reacts to “the demands of what we want” in the complex defensive structure Struber’s teams are based on.
But Struber’s is not the first system Sekagya has had to extol in a New York career that now spans eight years and four management regimes. Despite the recent dip in form under the current administration, Sekagya was adamant that the doubling-down on the Red Bull identity shown by Struber and sporting chief Kevin Thelwell will pay benefits going forward.
“Obviously it was different when I was first here under Petke when we had guys like Titi (Henry), Tim (Cahill) and Peguy (Luyindula) and then at the time when I went into coaching we made the transition away from those types of DPs. But with time we proved we can also win with that approach and everybody knows exactly what Red Bull is and sometimes it’s not said enough that that is something as a club you can be really happy for.”
“I think as far as winning MLS Cup, it’s frustrating to feel so close so many times and then always seeing the team change (players and coaches) with the way MLS is. But overall I think the club right now is thriving in a good way, we’re trying to build something. I think you notice a lot that in MLS, the teams that win the league, they build with a certain group of players for a long time and that’s what we’re starting to put in place right now.”
Sekagya certainly sounds content with his current position with the Red Bulls and the team’s future potential. But a man with such a wide range of playing and coaching experiences could very soon see a wide range opportunities arise. Sekagya currently possesses a UEFA B coaching license, and would have his A badge by now if not for final courses delayed by the COVID pandemic.
The Uganda national team manager’s role recently opened up following the departure of Northern Irishman Johnny McKinstry, and while Sekagya’s status as one of the country’s standout players of recent generations with a burgeoning coaching career might make him a candidate for the role, he said that his surroundings on and off the field in New York are enough to keep his mind of such possibilities for now.
“I haven’t put too much thought into it really. Here in New York I’ve had the opportunity to learn and get more experience and get my badges and then also my family is here, my kids are growing up. But even beyond that I feel like I’m with a Red Bull family that has been very good to me, and I haven’t really given much thought to leaving.”