Long after all his Minnesota United teammates and coaches had vacated the National Sports Center Stadium on Thursday, Ish Jome kicked six soccer balls to the far edge of the pitch.
While the equipment managers were busy cleaning up after the Loons’ final training session at home before a 7 p.m. Sunday match at the Seattle Sounders FC, Jome hoarded his collection of soccer balls, blue cones and wall mannequins so he could practice crossing into the box.
These additional reps aren’t an unfamiliar occurrence for Jome, especially since his recent plunge into the left back role after starter Marc Burch’s bilateral sports hernia surgery two months ago.
“Ish is a guy that will work on his own, no matter what, whenever he can,” Burch said. “Even if there’s no drills set up for him, he’ll go ahead and set up his own just so he can work a little extra and get to where he needs to be. And I think that’s really important.”
Jome, 22, made his professional debut with the Loons last season in the North American Soccer League and eventually made his Major League Soccer debut April 29. A month later, he made his first start, as a left winger. After one more start at that position, he started as a left wingback his next start July 4. And since July 22, he has been United’s starting left back.
Quite the change for the 6-1, 160-pound Gambia-born Jome, who grew up in Brooklyn Park and has played mostly in the attack as a forward or midfielder throughout his high school years at Prairie Seeds Academy and in college at UC-Santa Barbara.
Jome said he played the defensive position a bit near the end in college, but it has been a big step up at the pro level. While his natural position used to be as a wide midfielder, Jome said left back could be his new norm.
“I definitely had to learn a lot more tactical things, and I’ve been working with the coaching staff and staying after practices just to work on tactics and watching a lot of film on it,” Jome said. “The more I play left back, I think left back might suit me the best, as far as just my abilities on the ball and just being able to run at people and having the game in front of me and defending one-v.-one.”
At any given United practice, Jome’s name is the most frequently heard yelled from his teammates and coaches. Burch, goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth and assistant coach Mark Watson have all pulled Jome aside to give him pointers, and Jome said he’s also picked the brain of Justin Davis, who was the Loons’ starting left back in the NASL.
Coach Adrian Heath called Jome “keen“ and “willing,” and someone who “wants to get better.” Watson, who was a defender in his playing career, said it has been a crash course for Jome learning the position on the job, but he’s been very coachable.
“The one thing Ish has, he’s very athletic,” Watson said. “So even if sometimes he catches himself in a bad spot, he’s got good power and good speed to recover.”
The biggest challenge for Jome is the mentality switch from attacker to defender, but Burch said some of those skills are transferable, such as Jome using his physicality and tight positioning against other players.
Burch, 33, said he started his MLS career in 2006 as a forward before changing within a few weeks to a midfielder and eventually becoming a defender by the next year, where he’s been ever since. And while Burch is nearing the end of his recovery and could be back to playing soon, Jome has already started following the veteran’s path.
“What Ish lacks a little bit is confidence in that position, and that’s completely understandable,” Burch said. “You go with the flow, you know? I think the coaches do a good job of teaching you, but you’ve got to take their criticism as learning opportunities.
“Because it’s hard to learn a new position if you’ve been doing one thing for 20 years.”