In The Complete Darkness 2015, I profiled Minnesota United FC striker Christian Ramirez and until now that article was available only in print. Then, Ramirez was the more gregarious, but less lauded of the Batman and Superman pairing of he and Miguel Ibarra. Afterall, I started the profile when I needed to get Miguel to open up for an article about him in Howler Magazine (this article will explain the bowling alley references later ) and thought that having the gregarious best friend there would help. Since then, Ramirez’s star has continue to rise and he has continued to prove his doubters wrong. (A reminder, that if you want to support this kind of writing, you should buy the brand-new The Complete Darkness 2017.)
There is a debate about Christian Ramirez and it is a debate about luck. When the young striker came into the Minnesota United squad in 2014, few people took notice. The Loons had brought in former rival Jamie Watson from Orlando City and signed two key Brazilians–Juliano Vicentini and Tiago Calvano. Ramirez was not supposed to shine; he was backup to Pablo Campos. Was it luck, then, that put him up top for the Loons or hard work? Or, hell, was it fate?
“I think it was pure luck—with all due respect to [Christian]—Pablo was going to be the man and then he got injured.”
But consider this: over the last three seasons Christian Ramirez has scored more goals than any American. During his first three years as a professional footballer, Ramirez has notched up 45 goals and yet outside of Minnesota and the second division of American soccer he is almost a complete unknown.
While his roommate, Miguel Ibarra, catapulted from American soccer obscurity to the USMNT and Liga MX, Christian has continued to ply his trade in the small spotlight of Minnesota soccer with no call from Jurgen Klinsmann and little national media attention. And yet even this level of attention—2014 NASL Golden Boot winner, Young Player of the Year—was unexpected.
Assistant Coach Carl Craig doesn’t shine it on: “I think it was pure luck–with all due respect to [Christian]—Pablo was going to be the man and then he got injured,” but he is quick to add, “It was pure opportunism from Christian.” More on that opportunism later. For now, the luck.
Heading into the 2014 season for Minnesota United, it was the Pablo Campos show. Campos was the marquee signing in 2013, the first season under Dr. Bill McGuire’s ownership. He was the face of the newly-minted Loons.
In preseason, Christian found himself on the outside looking in. Christian Ramirez might have been in the right place at the right time, but his sudden success had nothing to do with luck.
Loons had gone out to California at the end of February for a few preseason matches. Ramirez remembers, “We were playing 11s and I was the one guy sitting out.” As a head coach, Manny Lagos had his guys. He did not rotate his lineup very often and, often to fans’ frustration, was known for not using many substitutes. So when Carl Craig says Christian was lucky it was because without a bit of luck, he might not have seen very many minutes in 2014.
It was a mix of bad and good luck, though. During the Loons’ preseason tour of England, Campos took a bad hit from an academy player. The subsequent tear of Campos’ ACL was a big blow to Campos and the team, who relied heavily upon the striker. It left a gaping hole up top for Minnesota.
That’s where the luck ends, because as much as Christian was a little Johnny-on-the-spot, he seized that opportunity. Even before the injury, Christian says he took his chances. In California—before Pablo’s injury—Christian came in as a substitute during an absolutely terrible preseason match against the Los Angeles Galaxy. The match had been moved because of inclement weather, but this only served to put it in the middle of a rainstorm. Christian remembers, “Keane scored, Landon scored, and then I came in at right mid[field].” He had never played as a winger, but Lagos threw him on and he was determined to take the chance. And he did, scoring a goal.
The next match was in England against Matlock Town. Lagos sent Ramirez on again at right midfield, but after five minutes, it was clearly not working. The formation shifted to allow Ramirez and Campos to pair up in a 4-4-2, allowing Christian to shine. But there was never a real chance to see if this formational switch would succeed. Pablo’s injury came in the next match and Ramirez knows that’s how he got his chance. There is a bit of ambivalence in Christian’s voice when I ask about how his opportunity came about, but Christian also has a striker’s personality, the sort of poacher’s ego that knows a goal is a goal no matter how it’s scored.
* * *
“Over three days I played one half each day. I thought, ‘damn, I’m not really going to get another opportunity.’”
Let me return to the luck for just a moment, because Christian could have been sitting on a number of benches other than Minnesota’s when Campos went down in an English cowfield. As the 2013 season was winding down, then player-coach Kevin Friedland had Ramirez on his radar and wanted to bring the striker in for a trial. Christian came out of Concordia University in Irvine, California, a program not known for producing future professionals. But at Concordia, Christian had made a bit of a name for himself. He helped lead the team to quarterfinals of the national tournament, further than they’d ever gone before. That year he scored 23 goals.
He left school in 2013 to become a professional with three chances to land a professional contract: a combine Seattle Sounders held in Las Vegas, a trial with Charlotte Eagles, and a trial with Minnesota United. Option one didn’t work out as Ramirez remembers: “I had gone to a Seattle Sounders combine in Vegas and the treatment I received, I just thought ‘this sucks.’ I showed up and I was the fourth sub on the fourth team. Over three days I played one half each day. I thought, ‘damn, I’m not really going to get another opportunity.’”
He took these doubts to Charlotte. He had no idea what Charlotte Eagles were (they were an odd mashup of Christian ministry and professional soccer team), but he went anyway. He had to borrow $200 from a friend for the hotel room. ”I was supposed to come out to Minnesota the following week, but that Sunday Charlotte offered me a contract and they said if I didn’t go to Minnesota I would get a signing bonus and get reimbursed for my trip, so I said, ‘yeah, I’m in.’”
When Friedland heard Ramirez wasn’t coming, he was annoyed. He called up Christian and asked why he signed for the first team that offered. It was simple for Christian—he didn’t know if anyone would be offering him any money to play soccer so he took the opportunity. Had he signed for Minnesota in 2013, who knows if he would have had the same chance to develop.
A year later, Ramirez was offered a trial at Minnesota again. By this time Friedland had left soccer altogether, so Ramirez lost his primary advocate. After Christian left his trial in the fall of 2013, he went back to California and trained. He and Miguel Ibarra had become friends during that trial and they played together during the off-season. Christian had heard nothing from Manny Lagos and was contemplating an offer from Sacramento Republic. The striker also had two Colombian clubs approach him and he entertained the idea of playing for his father’s favorite club, Club Atlético Nacional S. A. (Nacional). However, he knew (and his father advised him) that young players have a hard time actually getting paid by Colombian clubs. With just a few options and no word from Minnesota, Ibarra intervened, prodding Lagos into action.
When I ask Carl Craig about Christian’s trial, he says, “Couldn’t remember him. He didn’t make any sort of impact on me whatsoever. For whatever reason, no idea why. Obviously just had me head in different places.” When Christian signed and started training with the team he told Craig that he had previously trialed with the team and the assistant coach didn’t believe him.
That is how Ramirez came to Minnesota United. Luck, perhaps.
* * *
Christian’s parents, Juan and Elizabeth, grew up in Medellín, Colombia. In the 1980s, Medellín was the center of Pablo Escobar’s drug trafficking and, as TIME Magazine dubbed it, “The Most Dangerous City in the World.” To escape the violence, but mostly to build a life for himself to have a family, Juan Ramirez used his brother’s passport to immigrate to California. There, he married a family friend to get his citizenship. And when he had set himself up, he sent for his girlfriend Elizabeth, who was still living in Medellín.
Christian talks about his family a lot: his brothers Sebastian and Steven, his sister Manuella, and Juan and Elizabeth. The family of six lived in a low-income apartment with two bedrooms. When he comes home to visit, Christian either stays with a friend or on the couch. “Imagine it’s four of us, plus my parents,” he says. His father works third shift at a munitions factory. “That’s a big reason that I want to earn a contract where I can start helping my dad pay for a house. For him one day to change shifts at work, that would be the dream.”
When he was young, his family moved back to Medellín. They spent six years in Colombia before moving back to California, this time for good. During that time, Christian went to the same soccer school as James Rodriguez, Envigado FC, called Cantera de Héroes, or the Quarry of Heroes.
In California, Christian played soccer and that’s all. “Instead of cartoons, I was watching soccer,” he says. On weekends he could play as many as eight games, because he was involved with American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO), but his father also wanted him to play in the Hispanic league as well. Ramirez describes those Hispanic leagues as “chaos” with parents yelling and six-year-olds doing pregame walk-outs.
Like his friend Ibarra, Christian skated under the radar of U.S. Soccer, never earning a call-up to youth teams. And like Ibarra, he ended up in a small soccer program, where the odds of becoming a professional footballer were slim to none.
Ramirez had started at the University of California, Santa Barbara, but when he returned for his sophomore year, his head coach Tim Vom Steeg had him playing as a center back. There were a lot of murders going on in Colombia and Christian wanted to be closer to home to be with his family. He ended up at Concordia University with head coach Chris Gould. At Concordia, Gould says Ramirez was singularly focused becoming a professional. “I know a lot of student athletes will say they want to be professional, but it was very obvious that he was actually preparing to be a professional. How he conducted himself, how he took care of himself, his studying of game film: he took complete ownership of that process.”
Gould tells one story that he thinks sums up Christian: “He had a game where he wasn’t playing so well and at halftime we pulled him off the field. Clearly, he was disappointed with that” (pause to note that this story is perhaps extremely understated) … “And we put him in about ten minutes into the half and his first touch was a goal.” The lesson for Gould was that Ramirez “took ownership” of his frustration and poor play and turned it around.
* * *
For the short spring season of 2015, the entire squad struggled, but both Ramirez and Ibarra stood out. At the bowling alley (see Miguel article in Howler) Christian described the long conversations he and Miguel would have analyzing one another’s play. That week, both had played 90 minutes in a 1-0 defeat at Ottawa Fury. The team lacked cohesion and bite, but Ramirez seemed a ghost on the pitch. After the previous season’s breakout performance, center backs were muscling him out of the game. Since it was an early game, a two o’clock kickoff, Ibarra took a nap after the match. When he woke up, he immediately found Ramirez and summoned him to a meeting in the hotel lobby.
“I wasn’t pissy, because I’ve always told myself that I wasn’t going to be that guy who’s all smiles when things are good and when it’s not going well saying, ‘fuck this.’ I don’t want to be that kind of teammate.”
Over a beer—which they eventually admit is more than one beer— they spent the next three hours digging through the game, discussing their positions, and reliving just about every moment on and off the ball. They started their new season as the primary targets of the oppositions’ defenses and have now spent countless hours discussing how to get back to their 2014 chemistry. They describe these sessions as analytic in tone; they’re both very passionate about soccer, but cast themselves as cold analysts of their performances.
When I ask Carl about the dry spell he targets the way Ramirez was pushed off the ball too easily, “He’s gotta accept getting hit. He’s gotta post up against the 6’2” the 6’4”s, the hairy ones.”
In that interview, I asked Christian if he thought about a dry spell after last season’s success. He mentioned that he had dry patches in 2014. In 2014, Christian never went more than two games without a goal. After that interview it was a long time before Christian seemed to get his mojo back. A few games later, he was dropped from the starting XI while Campos scored the game-winning goal against the Silverbacks.
Ramirez went three months without a goal and saw much of his time cut to 15-20 minutes at the end of the match. During this period, he says he was confident, “I knew that my time would come again. I wasn’t worried about being called the backup. I was more frustrated because we weren’t getting the results, a tie here, a tie on the road. I just can’t do anything because when I get into a game the game is already decided.” He adds, “I wasn’t pissy, because I’ve always told myself that I wasn’t going to be that guy who’s all smiles when things are good and when it’s not going well saying, ‘fuck this.’ I don’t want to be that kind of teammate.”
But he would be lying if he didn’t admit frustration and he does that indirectly. When he finally came back—not only to the starting XI, but to goal-scoring—he did it with relish, scoring in seven straight matches. He finished the season with 12 goals and his return to form was a primary force behind the Loons’ resurgence.
And yet at the end of the season, when it came time for the team to nominate two players for the Golden Ball award, Ramirez found himself ignored for Justin Davis and Ibson. He reflects on that frustration, saying, “Last year I was okay with Miguel winning the Golden Ball in front of me because it was Miguel. But this year, I felt a bit disrespected not being nominated. Because if you look where the team was in the spring and where we are now, I think 12 goals and six assists goes a long way. But at the same time I don’t take anything away from Ibson or JD [Justin Davis] because it’s not against them. But it’s just how I feel about myself. But it’s a personal chip that I’ll carry on.” It’s just another trophy on his list.
Carl Craig reflects on the paradox of Christian’s 2015 season: “For what he can do, it was average. Didn’t score as many goals as he could have. But at the same time he finished second leading scorer.”
* * *
A question has puzzled me as long as I have been watching Christian play: “what kind of striker is he?” A poacher? A target man? I asked everyone I interviewed this same question. Carl Craig gave it a long pause and a laugh—it seems he wonders this too. “He’s a strange kind [of ] target man. He’s a good target man and very skillful. He’s got good feet,” but he doesn’t play the role in the way you would expect: winning headers or holding the ball. His feet get brought up a lot—his feet and his brains.
Ramirez has spent a lot of time watching game film on other players. He says, “I try and emulate certain players like Edin Dzeko and Falcao. I’ll go and watch them and try to figure out how they’re successful, mainly on their movement. They’re not the fastest of guys but somehow they always have another step on someone. When it comes to finishing, I was mind-blown watching Falcao at Porto and Atlético. That really gave me images of what scoring goals is like.”
People talk about Christian’s soccer brains because he plays the game so cerebrally. He watches and he imagines. I ask Carl Craig if there is a particular player’s style he’d liken Christian to and he says, “He’s got a touch of the Ibras [Zlatan Ibrahimovic] in him. Obviously Ibra is much bigger, but he’s got a touch of the ball.” Christian does have a certain flair for the extravagant goal.
Ramirez made his debut for Minnesota United FC away at San Antonio Scorpions on April 12, 2014. It was the first game of the season and after 16 minutes Aaron Pitchkolan pops a ball into the 18 yard box. Ramirez tucked his back into the defender and watched it drop in front of him. The ball took a bounce and he turned with it, muscling his defender, and sent a looping strike into the corner of the net.
Manny Lagos remembers that moment distinctly. “His first goal was scored in such a way that got people really excited. It just had a quality and deadliness to it that is very important.” It was an announcement, a triumphant entrance, and a statement that he would follow up on more than once.
Later that season, Christian scored a magnificent overhead kick in a 5-1 rout of Indy Eleven. It was one of those moments you experience as déjŕ vu: the second I saw the ball in the air and Christian eyed it up, I saw the slow-motion, backward arch and kick. And then I saw it again, it happened just as I imagined it.
There is no real debate about Christian Ramirez and luck. Events certainly conspired to let Ramirez emerge the way he did. However, there is an inevitability to watching him play, like déjŕ vu: you watch him play perhaps the way he imagines it as he watches Falcao or Dzeko in game tape. No luck required.
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