Frequent contributor Jon Marthaler has written about virtually every sport in the Twin Cities, and fills in on Saturdays for the RandBall blog on StarTribune.com. He'll cover the professional soccer scene in the Twin Cities, whether at the Metrodome or at the National Sports Center.
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In his second year as a pro, wide midfielder Miguel Ibarra started almost every game of the spring season for Minnesota. Unfortunately, things did not go according to plan. Based on his excellent rookie season, Ibarra was given more freedom to try to find space to create havoc; instead, he tended to cause chaos. Crosses went wildly awry. Shots flew off into space.
By the end of the spring, he was coming off the bench, and appeared to be mired firmly in a sophomore slump. The team took a week break before resuming preparations for the fall season, and according to Ibarra, he took the break to have a talk with himself.
"I just felt like the first half, it wasn’t me, I wasn’t playing how I know I can play," he said. "We took a week off, and I was just like, I’m going come back and I’m going to work hard until I get back into how I know how to play. I want to make it to the championship again and have another chance to win it. I’m just trying to help out the team."
By the time United's trip to San Antonio rolled around, the 23-year-old was back in the starting lineup, and he responded with his best performance of the year. Ibarra spent the evening causing problems for the Scorpions back line, culminating in one of the great individual efforts by a Minnesota player this year. After winning the ball back from an impossible position, he put in a cross that eluded the keeper and was shouldered home by Connor Tobin.
Since then, he's re-established himself as one of Minnesota's most dangerous offensive threats - and he looks like the Ibarra of old.
Yesterday's results have put Minnesota seven points out of first place, but Ibarra - buoyed by his recent performances - believes United still has a chance of making it to the Soccer Bowl. "I think we’re still in it right now. I don’t think anyone should count us out," he said. "I don’t think we have been playing bad. We just have to keep working and I think we’ll get into the spot."
Travel squad holds no major surprises
United makes three changes from the squad that traveled to New York last week. Defender Justin Davis is back in the 18, along with forward Travis Wall and midfielder Michael Reed. Making way are midfielders Omar Daley, Sean de Silva, and Kentaro Takada.
I asked head coach Manny Lagos about Davis's omission last week - surprising, given that Davis started every game in the spring and the beginning of the fall season, until picking up a minor knee injury a frew weeks ago. The head coach chalked it up to a need for a few more attacking substitutes. Said the coach, "We didn’t want to have too many defensive subs in the last game because we felt like we needed a little more offensive play, and we had Brian [Kallman] to cover us at the back that game."
The other notable omission, perhaps, is midfielder Sinisa Ubiparipovic. Last week, I wrote (mistakenly) that he had missed out on the travel squad; he was still serving his mandatory suspension for being sent off against Edmonton.
The full squad: GK - Van Oekel, Hildebrandt; D - Venegas, Pitchkolan, Tobin, Dias, Kallman, Davis; M - Ibarra, Franks, Mallace, Rodriguez, Reed, Bracalello; F - Campos, Ambersley, Griffin, Wall
The pressure's on
As I mentioned, the top of the league moved farther away from Minnesota on Saturday. Both New York (now leading the league with 15 points) and Tampa Bay (14 points, and still no fall losses) won on Saturday, putting Minnesota seven points out of first and six out of second.
United cannot afford to lose this week, or next week, when they host San Antonio. Even draws might not be good enough. And Lagos knows that the pressure is on his team - even more so than usual.
"I think that’s a part of finding out what kind of team you are and finding out what kind of group we have," he said. "We can lament about the points we dropped at home and the play we’ve done really well on the road, but we still haven’t gotten consistent in terms of grouping wins together."
Just in case...
I had to ask Lagos about last week's incident with Fort Lauderdale's coaches in Edmonton, in which the entire coaching staff was thrown out of the stadium by the cops. He explained to me that NASL rules do permit coaches to communicate to the bench, as long as they aren't disrupting or interrupting the game.
In other words, Minnesota's coaching staff is ready to go. "We'll have something just in case," said Lagos, laughing, "whether [assistant coach] Carl [Craig] or myself gets tossed - or we both do."