Big goals from teammates Christian Ramirez and Miguel Ibarra secured a spring season championship and playoff berth for Minnesota United FC. No North American Soccer League tandem produced more combined goals and assists (14).
The fall season kicks off at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday at Fort Lauderdale. United players, leery of a fall season slump affecting momentum, have Ramirez and Ibarra once again putting up big goals.
"We've said, 'Why not sweep this whole year and win three trophies?' " Ramirez said. "People know what to expect from us, so now we get to go to the next level."
The projection springs not from arrogance but the passion that Ramirez and Ibarra share for soccer. The California natives and roommates mesh stylistic difference on the field.
Ramirez, a 6-2, 187-pound forward, impresses with fluid play and a penchant for finishing scoring chances. Ibarra roams the midfield at a frenetic pace, packing limitless energy into a 5-6, 145-pound frame.
They scored a combined eight goals, half of Minnesota's spring season output. Moreover, they took delight in their work and the team's corresponding success.
"Through their personalities, they're making other people around them better," United coach Manny Lagos said. "They are in the beginning stages of their professional careers, and sometimes it's hard to bring the right mentality every day to get better at our level. But they've embraced the challenge. And they do it with a smile on their face."
Ramirez, 23, and Ibarra, 24, have grown into the formidable combination the team envisioned but never realized when it signed former NASL most valuable players Etienne Barbara and Pablo Campos before last season. Incompatibility (Barbara) and injury (Campos) foiled those plans.
Ibarra signed with Minnesota in 2012 after going deep into preseason tryout camp with Portland of Major League Soccer. He helped the then Minnesota Stars to the Soccer Bowl, where the team lost to Tampa Bay.
Last season, Ibarra was selected to the NASL's Best XI team. Off the field, he helped lay the foundation to attract Ramirez, who signed with Charlotte, a USL PRO franchise designed to groom players for Major League Soccer.
Ibarra upped the ante in the offseason, telling Ramirez, "If you come here, I promise we will win the league."
Living together helped make the process fun. Ibarra handles the cleaning duties at home. Ramirez rules the kitchen, often making chicken, broccoli and rice before games.
"He makes everything way too spicy," Ibarra said.
"My mom taught me it's good for your system," Ramirez countered.
Their contrasting coaching styles led a White Bear Lake boys' youth soccer team to a state championship. Ibarra is a players' coach. Ramirez brings the intensity.
"He gets frustrated," Ibarra said. "This one game our best goal-scorer couldn't get the ball in the net. I saw he was about to tell the player something, and I said, 'Give him confidence.' "
Ramirez, a rookie, tied for the spring season lead with five goals and paced all players with four assists. He ignited a National Sports Center crowd in a May 17 game with Fort Lauderdale. He scored from 25 yards out and later sent a ball off his heel toward Ibarra for an electrifying goal.
Earlier this week, Ramirez and Ibarra stood with teammates after a training session that was the dramatic opposite of the Fort Lauderdale match. Lagos pumped his fist and shouted expletives while chastising players for a lackluster effort. Lagos preached the need for continued focus in the fall season.
The message found its mark.
"We don't want to start losing because that takes the fun out of it," Ramirez said. "That motivates us. Miguel and I have found a balance of working hard to get wins but still acting like little kids getting paid to play soccer."