|LA Galaxy 1||N. England 0|
|Did You Know?|
|Ugo Ihemelu was a rookie for the LA Galaxy in 2005 after they made him the No. 5 overall selection in the 2005 SuperDraft. His current contract with FC Dallas runs through 2015, which would make him an 11-year MLS veteran.|
Bizarre as it may be, soccer and hair have a shared history as long as Marcelo Balboa's locks. Marquee players’ coifs of choice can spark pandemonium in the salons of Europe and beyond. (See: Beckham, David.)
But hair rarely provides a competitive advantage.
Except when it does.
In 2005, current FC Dallas veteran Ugo Ihemelu was a rookie center back on an LA Galaxy side that struggled during the season, snuck into the playoffs as the eighth seed, and made a run to the MLS Cup final. That year, although good enough to earn 25 starts, Ihemelu was known less for his talent than his hair: dreadlocks. They were thick and heavy and swung like branches when he went up for headers or when he stretched on a defensive play—a fact that would have a remarkable bearing on the outcome of the final at Pizza Hut Park that year.
It was late into the second overtime, and the Galaxy held a 1-0 lead over the New England Revolution thanks to Guillermo "Pando" Ramírez’s volley in the 105th minute.
“They had Taylor [Twellman], the leading scorer that year in the league,” then-LA center back Tyrone Marshall recalls. “They had Clint [Dempsey]. They had so much talent on that team.”
The Revs also had José “Pepe” Cancela, a crafty, sharpshooting Uruguayan midfielder who came on as a sub for Pat Noonan.
“I remember playing in the center of the field and being really glad that Cancela was not playing because I’d have to deal with him,” Peter Vagenas remembers. “I was not looking forward to Cancela coming on.”
But Cancela was relatively quiet, not quite finding the rhythm enough to see New England past the Galaxy defense. Then in the 118th minute, Dempsey pounced on a loose ball in the LA area. He turned and dropped the ball back to the wide open Cancela, who was standing wide open to the right of LA goalkeeper -- and Ihemelu's current FCD teammate -- Kevin Hartman.
“There was hardly any time remaining,” Cancela recalls. “Clint pulls it back for me, and I redirect it towards the other post.”
Ihemelu was the only thing between Cancela and the equalizer.
“Knowing Pepe—he was a really skilful player—I had an idea he was going to curl it back post,” Ihemelu says. “I saw him open up to bend the ball, and I just reacted.”
His reaction consisted of a desperation dive. Ihemelu flung his whole body at Cancela’s shot, leading with his head. And his swirling dreadlocks, one of which gave the shot just enough of a nudge to push the ball wide. It seemed impossible, but there was no denying that one of Ihemelu’s dreadlocks pulled off the biggest save of the day.
“It’s true,” Cancela says. “I looked up and the only thing that I could see was his hair. The ball grazes his hair and pushes it wide.”
“Yeah, I felt my dreadlock get a piece of it,” Ihemelu says. “I wasn’t sure if it had gotten around the post, but once I got up, I saw the ball had gone wide. I didn’t realize how big of a deal it was until after the game.”
“It was literally the play that made them win it,” recalls former Revs defender Jay Heaps.
The Galaxy, of course, held on after that to take home their second MLS Cup in four years.
Ironically, two years later, Ihemelu and Cancela found themselves on the same team, the Colorado Rapids. Cancela was making his final MLS stop before moving on to several clubs in Latin America. He is currently with Costa Rican side Herediano.
Ihemelu, meanwhile, was establishing himself as one of the most consistent and capable centerbacks in the league. He was no longer most well-known for his dreads. In fact, he no longer had them.
“I cut them when I got to Colorado,” he says. “I did keep [the cuttings] for a little while, at home, but guys were giving me a lot of crap about it. But, you know, I had it for seven years. Seriously, I’d heard girls talk about cutting their hair off, and I didn’t understand what the big deal was. Then I cut mine off. It was like ending a long relationship. It was hard to let them go. I did, though. I threw them away.”