PORTLAND, Ore. — Even as a 16-year-old, Tega Ikoba felt like a fit with the Portland Timbers. That’s how old he was in 2020, during his first preseason camp with the team, joining the team on its two-week excursion to Costa Rica. He was still part of the Major League Soccer team’s youth academy, still a year from making his professional debut for Portland’s former United Soccer League team, Timbers 2, but the speed with which he adapted to first-team training brought out sports cliches. Ikoba was performing above his age level.
He was already well over six feet tall, fast enough to run with the quickest Timbers, and yet already built to deal with punishment. That part was new, though. Used to being the biggest player on the field, Ikoba was now being bodied off the ball. But he was still beyond his years, a man among boys at his age group, so much so that his 2021 departure for the University of North Carolina caught a few by surprise. Shouldn’t Ikoba be headed for Major League Soccer, not the collegiate level?
Today, Ikoba is a Timber, choosing professional soccer on his own time, with jumps from Alabama to Oregon, as well as Oregon to North Carolina part of a deliberate course.
“The path that I've gone down has allowed me to really mature, and it’s made me ready for this step I'm about to take,” he said last week. The question he was asked? “What do people need to know most about why you’re here, now?”
Here are the key points along that path: The four choices of Tega Ikoba.
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Choice 1: Falling “in love with the concept”
Ikoba’s soccer origin story begins in Bettendorf, Iowa, part of a Quad Cities region the stretches across the state’s eastern, Illinois border. He grew up with the game, largely because a brother, six years his senior, had grown up with it, too. Eduvie would eventually become a pro himself.
“I really started to fall in love with the concept of soccer when I saw the success my older brother was having, and how much fun he seemed to be having playing soccer,” he says. He remembers Eduvie being called into the region’s Olympic Development Program camps, when Tega was still in grade school.
“I'd played [soccer] for fun up to that point, but I was like, ‘I want more of this’ after I saw him. He forged a path for me to follow.”
“He made the regional team after a couple of years trying. The success he felt, the happiness, the joy he had? It just made me want to do the same thing."
Eduvie and Tega have a lot in common. They’re both tall, each measuring out at around 6-foot-4. They play the same position: forward. They both kept education in mind, with Eduvie spending four years at Dartmouth, and they both eventually turned pro.
"Right now, he's actually playing professionally in Slovakia,” Tega says. Eduvie is in his second season with AS Trenčín, having playing in Hungary before. He was drafted by FC Dallas in 2019, before making the leap to Europe.
“He's always been one step ahead,” Tega says, “and I'm just following as fast as I can." Tega’s starting to catch up.
Choice 2: “I want to come here”
The Ikobas had moved to Madison, Alabama, by the time Tega was in middle school. Shortly after, he began making major strides within the soccer world.
“When I started getting around sixth grade, I started going to these little training centers,” he said. “From playing well at those, I ended up getting to go to U.S. national team camp.
“I think that's how the Timbers picked up on me. I was the only guy there at the camp who was not at an MLS academy, already.”
It sounds unfortunate, but remember: Ikoba wasn’t even a teenager yet, and he was moving around within college football country. Once he emerged, the recruitment started.
“[The Timbers] reached out to my Dad a couple of times. They were talking ... I was invited to play in multiple showcases with the Timbers, and unfortunately, I wasn't able to go to any of them.
“But when they were finally able to fly me to out [to Portland], the hospitality I received and the warm welcome, I honestly took one visit and I was like, ‘I want to come here.’”
He met with organization’s major decision makers, from ownership down. He saw the training center in Beaverton, the stadium in Goose Hollow. He saw what it would be like to uproot himself and make Cascadia his home.
“After a year, I ended up deciding I liked the residency idea,” he says. “I wanted to go to Portland.”
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Choice 3: “I liked the idea of that pathway”
Ikoba’s time in Portland wasn’t always smooth. The challenge of being a 16-year-old competing at the under-19 level was just that, a challenge, and during the times he went back to competing with players his age, his leadership was tested. Not even through high school, he was being asked to impart his lessons from higher levels.
An ankle injury also limited him in 2019, but in 2020, his path began to smooth. He took part in his first preseason camp with Portland’s MLS team, spent a fortnight among pros in the Costa Rican capital, and made his first seven appearances in the USL. He was also working toward his high school diploma through the academy’s new charter school, making it clear to everyone his next stop was not going to be the Timbers’ locker room.
“I liked the idea of that [college] pathway,” he says now, having insisted throughout his last academy years that yes, he was set on at least one year at school. “After hearing there were certain schools where you can keep your scholarship after your soccer career, I thought that was something I really wanted to be a part of.”
North Carolina, Iboka’s preferred destination, was one of those schools. Aldair Sanchez, an academy teammate, was also in Chapel Hill, as were a number of players Iboka knew from his road. The Tar Heels also had a program called Complete Carolina dedicated to helping qualified athletes who want to return to school.
"The more I looked at the school, I really liked it. I liked the team and the environment. Other players I knew were there ... That's how I got hooked.”
Choice 4: “It's time for me to move on”
Ikoba left Chapel Hill after earning ACC All-Freshman Team honors. He made 19 appearances. He scored six goals. He’d done enough to cast himself as a future Tar Heel mainstay, yet he’d also done enough to convince himself he was ready for a Portland return.
“I had a really good season at UNC. That gave me a lot of confidence,” he says. “I think that's really important, especially for strikers: scoring.”
Ikoba only started one of his first 10 games for the Tar Heels. After October goals against North Carolina State and Wake Forest, he went into the starting lineup, where he stayed for the rest of his career in blue.
“I don't know exactly how things will turn out in the future, but from what it sounded like, the Timbers wanted me to come back,” he says. “I was at a point where I was already content, [and] after talking with my family, I realized, I think it's time for me to move on.”
For those that saw Ikoba grow during his first stint in Portland, it may have never been time to leave. He integrated into the first team like a professional last preseason, so much so that it was unclear that if year in college would help.
But from Iowa to Alabama, then Alabama to Oregon, Ikoba’s always had a unique course. That course took him to North Carolina, and now, it’s brought him back to Portland.