If not exactly born to run, Minnesota United midfielder Romario Ibarra, at age 24, is fit to do so all day, which is exactly what coach Adrian Heath implores him and others to do on a team remade this offseason.
In the correct direction, of course.
Ibarra acknowledges “my strength is my speed” and throughout preseason training sessions Heath has prodded, urging Ibarra to run from, not toward, the ball even if it seems counterintuitive.
“One of the hardest things, believe it or not, is to get people to run away from the ball,” Heath said. “They want to come and play all the time with the ball.”
Just as a basketball coach exhorts players to cut hard without the ball, Heath wants Ibarra to create space and passing angles while he races toward the opponent’s goal. That will allow newly acquired midfielders Ozzie Alonso and Jan Gregus as well as star Darwin Quintero to create with the ball from behind.
Heath notes influential European clubs Manchester City and Barcelona impress with swift playmaking — “All this tiki-taka,” he said about what was originally a Spanish style of play reliant on movement and short passes — in tight areas.
“But when they get in that field’s final third, they look to go in behind people,” Heath said. “That’s what we’ve got to get people to do.”
That’s what Heath is demanding from Ibarra and teammates such as young forwards Mason Toye and Abu Danladi, when Danladi returns to good health.
“The last thing defenders want to do is chase them way backwards to their own goal with someone as quick as Romario,” Heath said. “We’ve got to get him and Mason to understand that’s going to make them have the career they want to have. We’ve got people like Darwin who are clever at finding the little pockets between the lines, the forward and the midfield and the defense.”
Heath knows from his playing days in England long ago what the commitment to sprint requires.
“I was a forward, I know what it’s like, guarantee you,” Heath said. “You run six times and it doesn’t come and the one time you don’t do it, it’s there on the plate for you. You have to have the belief that you keep going. That’s where Romario and Abu and Mason are going to make their living.”
Ibarra said he knows Heath wants to use his speed — and Quintero’s many skills.
“It will be a strong point for the team having someone like Darwin to assist,” Ibarra said through an interpreter. “That when the moment is right, I know the ball will get to me so I can score as many goals as possible. In that sense, I am calm, but I also know how to receive the ball on my feet. I can play both ways.”
Ibarra scored three times in nine games last season despite being sidetracked some by injury after his Chilean club transferred the Ecuador national team member to the Loons in early July. Heath expects more now from Ibarra, with last year’s experience and a full preseason behind him. He is a midfielder Heath plays up top particularly when striker Angelo Rodriguez is absent.
“It will make a big difference,” Ibarra said about returning for a full season. “I’m getting to know my teammates much better. Having an entire preseason is the best to adapt faster and get to know everybody. I think I’ll have a better year this season. This year will be much better because I’m starting with the team from preseason and I’m connected 100 percent, so I hope to give my best.”
International friendly set for Allianz Field
Minnesota United will play its first international friendly at Allianz Field on May 22 against the German Bundesliga’s Hertha Berlin. The match will start at 7 p.m.
United CEO Chris Wright called it “a historic moment for our club” and another step toward putting Minnesota “on the global soccer map.”
Season-ticket holders already have a ticket for the game. General public tickets will go on sale March 5.
Hertha Berlin is its city’s biggest soccer club. Nicknamed “The Old Lady,” it was a founding member of the Bundesliga and remains the only Berlin club in Germany’s first division.