Nabi Kibunguchy came into the 2021 MLS SuperDraft as a projected top 10 pick, but his somewhat surprising slide out of the top half of the first round may have been a blessing in disguise. Now, instead of starting his pro career with a team near the bottom of the league standings, Kibunguchy will start his career on one of the stronger teams in MLS.
Kibunguchy was the second of Minnesota United’s first-round draft choices in last week’s MLS Draft, going 18th overall to the Western Conference finalists. The 23-year-old center back is coming off a stellar career at University of California-Davis and will now look to learn from a rising group of players and an experienced head coach.
“I like how they play, they are in your face and play every team in the league tough,” Kibunguchy told SBI Soccer. “I’m excited to work with a guy like Ike [Opara], a player who has been in this league for a long time and has a lot of experiences to pass on. I think working with Coach [Adrian] Heath will be a good experience too, since he has been around MLS for a while now and also has many years of work in England. It’s a great situation to come in to.”
“Nabi is a top-10 talent in this draft,” said Heath following the SuperDraft. “When we realized he was still available we immediately made a trade to select him. He’s a gifted and versatile player who can play in the center of the defense or as a number six role. We can’t wait to get him here to Minnesota to continue his development and let him learn alongside his teammates and coaches.”
A member of the U.S. Under-19 Men’s National Team back in 2016, Kibunguchy was part of the squad that won the Slovakian Cup, a team that included USMNT standout Weston McKennie and was coached by USMNT legend Brad Friedel.
That tournament was Kibunguchy’s first taste of life representing his country, before choosing to play collegiately at UC-Davis. Kibunguchy has since become a top defensive prospect heading into MLS, but still reflects on those experiences and how it has played a role in his development as a a player.
“It was new to me at that age, but it was also part of the moments I will never forget,” Kibunguchy said. “Being able to go overseas and be a part of that and also pick up a trophy was pretty special. Obviously working with a lot of young talents was cool too, especially now seeing Weston [McKennie] playing with Juventus, who are one of the biggest clubs in the world. It was a special time and I still look back at them.”
“I probably feel I could’ve played better during that tournament, but I felt starstruck because I was playing with so many good American players and it was my first experience of participating in something like that. I still follow a lot of these players on social media, but it’s hard to stay connected as much as we did then.”
After injuries forced Kibunguchy to miss most of his freshman season at UC-Davis, the California native developed into one of the top defenders in the Big West Conference. Kibunguchy started in 43 of his 48 appearances from 2017-19, scoring three goals and chipping in two assists.
A natural centerback, Kibunguchy also saw ample time as a defensive midfielder in Dwayne Shaffer’s squad. His versatility helped him earn two Big West First Team honors in 2017 and 2019, while also helping the Aggies claim a first Division title in program history and also play in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2008.
“I think playing at UC Davis has been a big part of my career, helping me grow into the player I am today,” Kibunguchy said. “Being a part of that Division-winning team will easily go down as one of the best moments of my life and also picking up Big West honors in separate seasons. It was a great learning experience for me and I cannot thank them enough for their support.”
“When I got to UC-Davis I was a centerback, but I quickly began learning the No. 6 position. It took me some time to learn everything about the position and what was needed to play it, but I feel its great experience to have as I now go into MLS. I think extra versatility is needed in that league and it can help me in Minnesota.”
After his four seasons at UC-Davis, Kibunguchy played for USL League Two side San Francisco Glens in 2019, earning Western Conference Team of the Year honors. The 6-foot-3 defender also stayed active by training with fellow USL side Sacramento Republic in 2020 with the Big West season cancelled due to COVID-19.
Kibunguchy now joins a Minnesota United team that will be a top contender in 2021, led by star playmaker Emmanuel Reynoso, defensive midfielder Jan Gregus and versatile standout Hassani Dotson. The looming return of Opara after missing the 2020 season will make the competition for playing time in central defense even tougher, but Kibunguchy is ready to learn and compete for minutes and build on the special moment that being drafted gave him.
“It was a great day, one that I will never forget,” Kibunguchy said. “I have been waiting for this time, to begin my professional career, and I am itching for preseason to start up. I followed Minnesota United a bunch last season and they have an exciting group of players and a great head coach in Adrian Heath. I am excited for the opportunity to work with the franchise and they group of players.
“Overall I am just excited to be there. I know it will bring some new challenges, but it will only make me a better and tougher player. I feel I have a lot to give after my experiences in college and I am just excited to get going in preseason and show that I belong in MLS.”