Minnesota United’s improvement from a team that missed the MLS playoffs its first two seasons to one that now is firmly aimed there has brought change and sacrifice.
Veteran midfielder Miguel Ibarra knows such things well.
First signed by the franchise in 2012 during its NASL years, Ibarra started 31 of 33 games last season for a team that didn’t sniff the playoffs. This time around, United is a winner in MLS play for the first time, fourth in a Western Conference that sends seven teams to those playoffs.
Ibarra himself is finding his way through a season in which he was sidelined by an April hamstring injury and has been asked to play a variety of roles and positions — including one as a substitute — when needed.
He’ll likely return to the starting lineup in an MLS game for the first time since July 3 in Saturday’s home game against Vancouver if midfielder Kevin Molino’s hamstring keeps him out, as expected.
Ibarra’s April injury, the offseason acquisition of five new starters and the return of Molino and Ethan Finlay from knee surgeries has sidetracked a season in which coach Adrian Heath once foresaw Ibarra becoming a double-digit goal scorer. He has scored one goal, has one assist and has started 13 of the 18 games in which he has played.
“Obviously, I would have liked for it to pick up where it was last year,” Ibarra said about his third MLS season. “But my mentality when the team is winning, I am happy and whenever my name is called up, I’ll be ready.”
His name has been called as a second-half sub for nearly a month, but he has called himself ready for any occasion. One such occasion could be filling Molino’s starting spot in Saturday’s game, United’s first with a full week’s rest for the first time since May.
Asked about Ibarra’s role at the moment, Heath said: “It’s going to be important. If we don’t feel Kevin is right, Miggy will probably be starting. Trust me, between now and the end of the season, we’re going to need every single one of these players. I know it’s probably a bit frustrating for him at the minute. He hasn’t started as much as he would have liked in the last couple weeks.
“That’s the beauty for a coach of having a deep squad and having people available.”
Beloved by Loons fans because they have come to know him so well after so long, Ibarra was “Batman” to former United star Christian Ramirez’s “Superman” before Ramirez was traded last season. This season, he has played on both wings and played left back occasionally when Heath needed him there after captain Francisco Calvo was traded in May at that position.
“I’ve been playing a lot of different positions, haven’t really been getting comfortable in one,” Ibarra said. “We knew injuries happen. Everything happens. Last year, we had Molino and Ethan go down, so I had to be the one who stepped up. This year, we didn’t have an outside back at one point, so I had to step in there. I just have to be ready.
“That’s the good thing about me: Every position you put me in, I’m always going to be ready.”
Ibarra is one of at least three United midfielders who can play multiple positions.
“One of the good things, Miggy, Kevin and [newly signed] Robin Lod now, they can play on the left, they play on the right, they can play underneath,” Heath said. “We’ve got a lot of strength and depth in that position now, but we’ve also got a lot of people who are quite versatile.”
Ibarra considers himself valuable because of that versatility, whether on the left wing or right, whether starting or subbing.
“They know every time I come off the bench, I give the team a lot of energy,” he said. “So that’s what I’ve been doing and waiting for my name to come up. You never know what can happen.”