It took Christian Ramirez only sixteen minutes. Sixteen minutes into his debut for Minnesota United in 2014, he announced himself to fans as something special. Something we had not seen in a generation.
When Christian Ramirez first took the pitch for Minnesota United, he was a nobody. His first professional season was impressive, but came for a team—the Charlotte Eagles—that nobody paid much attention to (except perhaps Assistant Coach Kevin Friedland, who had scouted him eagerly).
And when Ramirez took the pitch that day in San Antonio, it was the season opener and the team was without star striker Pablo Campos. How was this kid supposed to fill the shoes of the 2012 NASL MVP and Golden Boot winner?
In the sixteenth minute, Christian trapped a looping header from Aaron Pitchkolan. Pressing his body backward into his defender, he allowed the ball to fall perfectly so he could swing his body and drive the ball into the far post. There was something of a bit magic in that moment. As fans watched at the Nomad Pub in Minneapolis, they made eye contact and a telepathic question spread: is this guy legit?
The year before, pacey winger Miguel Ibarra had done something similar. He buzzed around the pitch with a hummed electricity that was infectious to the fans. Miguel would go on to be the heart of the club. Miguel plays with his heart on his sleeve—his joy, frustration, and diffidence laid bare for fans.
When Miguel left for Club Léon, it was difficult for fans, but something they accepted for his benefit. The club got a hefty haul—$1 million was an unheard of sum for an NASL club—and Miguel got to further himself in Mexico.
And Miguel’s return was a welcome relief. The passion and joy he brought to the team spread again throughout the stands. There was a floodgate of joy in his header against Colorado for his first MLS goal. Here was a player that seemed to be singled out for criticism—a player who now vaguely alludes to wanting to quit soccer last season—feeling the weight lift off his shoulders. That weight would not truly be lifted until he was handed the starting reigns in 2018. He has since lit up the team, second only to Darwin Quintero for his value to the team.
If Miguel has been the heart, Christian was something more magical. Miguel never stops running and Christian drifts, mercurial in the attack. The number of goals Christian scored was impressive; there were several years where Ramirez was the highest American goalscorer in the world. But it was not the production rate that made him special, it was the way he did it.
From that first day in 2014, Ramirez scored goals that fans in Minnesota had not seen in the modern era: audacious chips, half volleys from distance, and, of course, the bicycle kick. In a 5-1 drubbing of Indy 11 that year, Ramirez scored a bicycle kick that seemed to last a full minute. The ball levitated, Ramirez contorted, then threw his body into the air. When the ball went in a number of fans began bowing in Wayne’s World style: “We’re not worthy.”
And we didn’t feel worthy. This club had just climbed out of the depths of despair and had found two players in the following two seasons that made fans feel special. These were top players that had been overlooked elsewhere, but came into their own here, up at Nessie in Blaine.
There was always a stereotypical Minnesotan unease with how much we valued Ramirez and Ibarra. Both players were obviously a level above NASL, but because of American soccer’s complete ignorance about lower division soccer and its not-coincidental lack of self-awareness of that ignorance, the players were always dismissed. “They’re good for NASL, but not for MLS.” Minnesotans internalized that feeling and there was sometimes an embarrassed unease with praising him to outsiders.
So it was that Ramirez and Ibarra started both their seasons in MLS on the bench, having to re-prove their worth over again. In 2017, Ramirez was the highest American goalscorer without penalty kicks taken into account and Ibarra has been the most consistent player for United in 2018. While Ramirez has struggled for form in 2018, the magic still glimmers, as we saw in his ridiculous goal from distance against San Jose earlier this season.
It is with little wonder then that Ramirez’s sale to LAFC has been met with derision. A 27-year-old domestic striker who has scored double digits in every season of his career has been replaced with a 29-year-old international who has never played outside the Colombian league and has scored double digits exactly once in his career.
This article, however, is not to bemoan the poor treatment of players, the continual obsession with the strike-force while the defensive problems fester in the sun, or the simply baffling decision making. Rather, it is here to praise and marvel at what we were able to watch.
Ramirez’s relationship to fans had grown somewhat tense recently, it seems, where he seemed to pay more attention to the criticism of a few rather than the widespread adulation of many. And it is with frustrated embarrassment that I admit I missed Ramirez coming over to the supporters to applaud them for his last home match in Minnesota. I was so angry with the result, I walked straight out at the whistle. I don’t want to do that again.
Christian Ramirez’s magic may have been put into scale by the recent appearance of another brilliant wizard on the pitch, Darwin Quintero. But there is a legacy that Ramirez will leave behind, the most goals scored in modern Minnesota professional soccer history and the player who could conjure up something beautiful ex nihilo.
And now, let us watch more goals.
FiftyFive.One is now on Patreon. Do you like the independent coverage of soccer news from Minnesota and beyond that FiftyFive.One offers? Please consider becoming a patron.