They watch and cheer back home in Lancaster, Calif., where his love for soccer took root. Former coaches and teammates from his alma maters Taft College and the University of California, Irvine meet around televisions or computers and marvel. Even veteran Minnesota United FC teammates can feel like fans in Miguel Ibarra’s presence.
An explosive midfielder with great speed and stamina, Ibarra took a unique and circuitous path from an unknown to the 2014 North American Soccer League most valuable player. Bigger still, last fall he became the first player from a second-tier league in North America to receive a national team call-up in a decade.
The kid who could not garner Division I college interest out of high school found his jersey hanging next to Landon Donovan’s in the locker room. Clint Dempsey presented Ibarra, once cut by Portland of Major League Soccer, a ball signed by the U.S. team after his first appearance in an international match.
And the dream ride continues. On Sunday, Ibarra, 25, is expected to receive another national team call-up. He will travel with the team for friendly matches in the Netherlands on June 5 and Germany on June 10.
United FC teammate Christian Ramirez considers Ibarra, in his fourth year with the team, “the face” of the NASL. His United FC jersey is the team’s top seller and 75 percent of the original shipment already has sold.
Minnesota’s recent selection for an MLS franchise means Ibarra, who has signed to play with United through the 2016 season, could lead local soccer into a new era.
With success came naysayers. By promoting a player such as Ibarra, national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann is poking at MLS, critics contend, by showing a willingness to give deserving players an opportunity regardless of pedigree. If Ibarra works out, Klinsmann is a genius. If not, what’s the harm?
“People are going to look at him differently now, so he has to send the signal out that he’s ready to take on the challenge,” Klinsmann said. “He has to confirm every week why he is with the national team.”
Once again, Ibarra is ignoring the doubters. Measuring 5-7, 145 pounds, he has always been told he is too small to succeed. He climbed from a community college to a Division I program, then from the second-tier NASL to the national team.
“I never let it affect me,” Ibarra said. “Always working hard, having faith and doing my job have always helped me. Not giving up on my dreams is a big thing for me. Now that the national team happened for me, I believe it even more.”
Making good on hype
The reserved Ibarra has not allowed success to warp his mind. He lives with Ramirez in a downtown Minneapolis apartment complex. Both of them wear superhero T-shirts under their game jerseys, Ibarra sporting a Batman model that earns him the nickname in some circles.
“He’s the same,” said Ramirez, who wears a Superman T-shirt. “Couple more pairs of shoes. He posts a lot more national team photos. Sometimes I tell him, ‘Hey, sometimes you can post a Minnesota photo or a photo of your parents.’ But I think it’s because he’s living a dream, and that’s what comes with it.”
In some ways, Ibarra is making good on the hype surrounding him since his high school days. As a senior he played with a Premier Development League team instead of Lancaster High School, a bump in notoriety that quickly got out of hand.
“Some people saw a special talent and then talk started about D.C. United and Mexico having interest,” said Taft coach Angelo Cutrona, who knew the rumors were bogus when he “heard Manchester United was interested. There were a lot of nobodies saying big things and a lot of somebodies not noticing.”
In reality, Ibarra’s soccer future came down to trying out for the Chicago Fire of MLS, which expressed some interest, and Taft. A late change of heart sent Ibarra to the California community college. He was shy and quiet, something that continued at every stop.
“He’s a notorious slow starter,” Cutrona said. “Sometimes it takes him five to 10 minutes to get on the ball and do something. [Lionel] Messi is like that. Miguel feels out his environment and then you see what he can do.”
In games Ramirez tries to get Ibarra the ball right away to provide a spark.
“Sometimes if the game is not coming to him, he won’t go find it,” Ramirez said. “And if he’s not finding it, he’ll be quiet and other teams will be like, ‘Where was Miguel?’ But all it takes is one play for him to impact a game.”
Klinsmann said, “With every camp, you could see him growing and taking people on. From the first time until now, he’s grown tremendously. He’s a curious kid who wants to learn, grow and see where his highest level is.”
Said Ibarra: “At my last camp, Jurgen said, ‘OK, now we’re starting to see the Miguel Ibarra that plays for Minnesota United.’ Once I get comfortable, I go.”
Better managed than coached
Ibarra’s technical abilities, his touch on the ball, his passing and finishing skills, are strong. But he always has been a man apart tactically, that is, the way he employs those considerable skills within a team concept.
Cutrona said he challenged Ibarra to “think before he moved” rather than “just kicking the ball to him and seeing what happens.” He was named the Central Valley Conference most valuable player.
George Kuntz, Ibarra’s coach at UC-Irvine, took a different approach.
“I managed Miguel through college, I didn’t coach him,” Kuntz said. “We gave him a lot of freedom to go forward and attack.”
As a senior, Ibarra was named to the All-Big West first team and earned conference co-offensive player of the year honors.
“All the coaches I’ve had have done the same at first, they try to coach me, and I listen, but I find myself all over the place,” Ibarra said. “It’s just kind of natural. Coaches put me at forward or wherever and I’m just all over the field. At first when I came in here, Manny [Lagos] tried to coach me. But then he said, ‘You know what? Just play your game. You’re better when you just play your game.’ ”
Not that Lagos is more consultant than coach. In 2013 he helped Ibarra turn an early-season slump into NASL Best XI honors.
“Part of coaching at this level is a little bit of both,” Lagos said. “If I’m being honest, Miguel has had to be managed, in a good way. Ultimately, it has to be within the context of what the team is doing. He’s really embraced that and I don’t think it’s a coincidence his goals and assists have gone up because of it.”
MLS star in Minnesota?
His profile heightened by national team call-ups and league MVP honors, Ibarra could find other leagues vying for his services. He is under contract for an undisclosed amount of money, believed to be approaching $100,000, though any team could buy him out plus a transfer fee.
“There are definitely a lot of teams interested,” Ibarra said. “I talked to Jurgen about it, too. He said, ‘The teams all know your situation so if they want you, they will talk to Minnesota. But if not, I have no problem. You can stay in the NASL and keep playing how you’re playing. That’s not going to change my decision to call you or not.’ ”
Another reason Ibarra might not need to go to MLS is that the league might come to him. Minnesota United FC was named an expansion franchise, pending a stadium deal, that could start play in 2017.
“That’s definitely something I’ve been thinking about and considering,” Ibarra said. “As of right now I’m just more focused on this season. But it would be great to be here with Minnesota, with the team that opened its doors to me, and keep going with them. It would be amazing.”