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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Watch the replay of Minnesota’s game against Edmonton from Saturday. It won’t be long before Miguel Ibarra, #10 in gray, zooms into your picture from points unknown. Start focusing on him. He’s in central midfield - no, wait, he’s on the right wing. Now he’s tracking back deeper in the midfield. Now he’s harrying a defender, who until recently thought he might collect a wayward ball with no pressure whatsoever.
Eventually, you think to yourself: Geez, that guy is always running.
The 24-year-old midfielder is listed, with odd precision, on the team’s website as 5’6”, 145.2 lbs, making him the smallest player on United’s roster. He is fast, but not a burner; quick, but not blindingly so. He is not a notably great passer, yet, and in the rare cases when he does shoot, his finishing needs work.
But that workrate. He can run all day.
“His energy and his attitude and his selflessness to work hard to really put teams on their heels is so important, particularly when we’re not using the ball as well as we could,” said United head coach Manny Lagos. “He’s got a lung capacity that’s amazing. That’s the thing about soccer players; you can be big and strong or you can be small and quick. Miguel has this ability to make these long hard runs, and recover so quickly to do it again. It’s really impressive and unique, and I think that’s why that energy comes out on the field.”
In some ways, that workrate was the key to the 4-2-3-1 formation that United deployed against Edmonton. With the wingers pushing for width, Ibarra was left with acres of space in the middle of the field to try to run into.
He’s still likely to pop up in odd positions - How come he’s actually outside of Jamie Watson right now? - but that freedom gives him the opportunity to use his energy to prod the United attack forward.
That energy is also useful as a defensive weapon. The second half of games in the NASL often turn into a series of offensive volleys; the games become less about tactics and moving the ball, and more about committing players forward to stress the defense through sheer numbers.
For Lagos, Ibarra’s energy kept Edmonton away from that, and the coach was particularly impressed by that facet of his game. “In the second half when they wanted to push it and get a goal back, he showed some energy and made some runs that they really couldn’t go forward the same way, since he was there to counter,” he said.
That role as an attacking midfielder is quickly becoming one of Ibarra’s favorites - and he was especially enthusiastic after a 1-0 win, the team’s third in a row. “As of right now, I think that’s my position,” he said. “I think I’m doing a great job. I’m just working my [redacted] off, and I’m going to keep doing it and doing it.”
Ibarra was also quick to credit his relationship with center forward Christian Ramirez. The two, who both attended college in the Irvine, CA area, have quickly become inseparable both on and off the field. “He checks, I go in behind, or he checks, I give him the ball, he peels off and I come in. We just have that understanding going right now and it’s working well,” said Ibarra.
Perhaps fittingly, Ibarra used a California-related comparison, when describing the two of them. “Right now, it’s what I would call a Kobe-Shaq [type of relationship],” he said. “It’s working really well right now.”
2014 is a big year for Ibarra; it’s time for the third-year veteran to grow into that playmaking role. He has shown flashes of ability in that role, for certain, but those flashes have been rare. His goal against Ottawa in week two, for example, was an excellent finish - but his one goal in 2014 equals his entire 2013 output.
Lagos says that he has Ibarra working specifically on his finishing and both his offensive and defensive positioning, in the hopes of turning him into a complete attacking playmaker. “I think he would even tell you that he needs to become a player that is not just using his energy to solve problems,” said Lagos. “[He needs to work on] his passing, his touches, and then finding ways that he can be a little more in position to get shots.”
In other words, the coach wants him to translate that energy into something beyond just the ability to run for 90 straight minutes. “He’s an offensive player; he’s using that selfless energy to help other players, and I think he also has to use it to find himself in good scoring positions,” said Lagos. “He’s grown every year he’s been with us, and I think he’s going to continue to do that.
“I think [his best] is still to come, to be honest. I think he’s that young, that his best stuff is going to be as he matures and decides how he wants to dictate the game using all of those abilities that he has.“
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