Miguel Ibarra returns to Minnesota United FC this season, serving not only as an attacking midfielder but as a link to the club’s past. In 2014, Ibarra became the first second-division player called up to the U.S. men’s national team in almost a decade. The next year he earned a well-compensated move from Minnesota to Club León in the Mexican top division.
There was a moment early in his career, though, when it looked like Ibarra would go the way of so many other second-division players — all potential, no production.
Ibarra started all but a handful of games in his rookie season in 2012, scoring four goals. Coming into 2013, many had him tabbed as an impact player for Minnesota, which had just been purchased by Bill McGuire and was amassing more talent than it had been given in years. But Ibarra, immediately went into a sophomore slump. He scored just once in the spring season, and by the time the summer break rolled around, he was out of the starting lineup.
For most of August, Ibarra was a substitute, functioning as a change of pace for a team that was struggling mightily. Minnesota headed to San Antonio in late August with just one victory in four fall season games. Anything short of a win against the reeling Scorpions would probably put the Loons too far out of playoff contention to have any hope.
Minnesota’s Pablo Campos scored on either side of halftime to give the team a 2-1 lead. But as that edition of United often did, the team gave up a late goal to level the score. As the clock hit 90:00, the Loons pressed forward, needing a goal.
Enter Ibarra, who should have been tired after making his first start in nearly a month. He chased down a loose ball on the right wing, near the corner flag, where two Scorpions defenders set upon him. In the matter of a couple of seconds, Ibarra lost the ball, won it back, lost it again and was knocked to the ground. But he never stopped working. Eventually, he won the ball against both defenders, received a return pass from a teammate in open space and fired in a pinpoint cross. It found teammate Connor Tobin’s shoulder, then the back of the net, giving United an unlikely 3-2 victory.
For Ibarra, it seemed to be the turning point of both his season and his career. It was the day that he seemed to discover that his particular combination of skill and a never-say-die attitude could carry him through.
He was in the lineup for the rest of 2013 for Minnesota, earning his way into the league’s Best XI. In 2014, he was league MVP. By mid-2015, he was on the national team, and off to Mexico — a stratospheric rise. After not getting much playing time there, he’s now back, with a chance to be a face of a franchise moving to greater visibility.
It all started, though, with one exceptional effort in an otherwise forgettable game in San Antonio.
SOCCER SHORT TAKES
• The Chinese Super League announced restrictions on the number of foreign players who will be allowed to play in the league in 2017, as well as curtailing “irrational” spending on them. The new rules seem to have had an immediate effect. Forward Diego Costa (above), who appeared to have left Chelsea in anticipation of being given a hugely inflated contract in China, seems to be back with the Blues.
• The North American Soccer League isn’t dead after all. U.S. Soccer announced that both the NASL and USL would be sanctioned as second-division leagues next season, and the New York Cosmos, the NASL’s marquee team, were sold to a new owner. The league will play in 2017 with eight teams.
• Deloitte released its annual “rich list” of the top moneymakers among world soccer teams and, once again, it’s dominated by Premier League teams. Five of the top 10 teams — and eight of the top 20 — are English clubs. They are led by Manchester United, which landed in the top spot for the first time since 2005.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
Bundesliga: Borussia Dortmund at Werder Bremen, 8:30 a.m. Saturday, FS1. Many thought that this would be the season that BVB again challenged for the German title. Instead, at the winter break, it was in sixth place, with no chance at the Bundesliga crown and facing a big chance of falling out of the top four. Will the end of the break give Dortmund a fresh start?
Premier League: Tottenham at Manchester City, 11:30 a.m. Saturday, Ch. 11. After City lost 4-0 against Everton last week, dropping 10 points behind Chelsea in the title race, coach Pep Guardiola (above) said his team was out of the championship picture but could realistically hope to catch second-place Tottenham. Spurs are just three points ahead of fifth place Man City.
Serie A: Napoli at AC Milan, 1:45 p.m. Saturday, beIN. Neither Napoli nor AC Milan probably has what it takes to catch Juventus in the Italian standings; only Roma might be able to do that. That said, both teams are vying for third place, the last spot in the Italian standings that plays in the Champions League. Milan is four points behind third-place Napoli with a game in hand.
Liga MX: Club América at Tigres, 8 p.m. Saturday, Univision. The rematch of the 2016 Apertura championship game happens just three weeks into the Clausura season, as América heads north to visit Tigres in Monterrey. Despite reaching the title game in late December, both teams have started the spring season winless. Many games remain, though, to straighten things out.