Here’s the problem: Howler Magazine wanted a profile of Miguel Ibarra. Well, that wasn’t the problem exactly, the problem was that Ibarra is painfully shy. I had known him for three years and had no idea how to make him come out of his shell in an interview.
But this was the guy everyone wanted to hear from, a nobody, playing for “The Team That Nobody Wanted,” and Jurgen Klinsmann had just called him up to the Men’s National Team, the first lower-division player to get a call up in over a decade. The hype over this mysterious kid led none-other-than Sepp Blatter to call him “The American Messi.” (This ex nihilo hyperbole still entertains me. I mean, we loved him and thought he was great, but Messi?)
I landed on the idea of inviting his best friend and attack partner, Christian Ramirez to the interview and we would all bowl together. Ramirez has many of the complementary attributes for Ibarra—he is a bit more gregarious and has more of a media savvy that means he’ll say the things that writers want to write down. The two also have a hilarious brotherly relationship, where Miguel plays the part of the mischievous little brother despite being a year older.
At the time, Miguel seemed on the edge of something big. I wouldn’t say anyone in Minnesota thought he would end up lighting up the Champions League, I wasn’t even sure if he would be a fixture in the Men’s National Team. But we knew he had something special, that much had been obvious from when he arrived in Minnesota.
Miguel Ibarra showed up with a pack of other unknown players to the Minnesota Stars in 2012. The Stars had just won the championship as something of a ragtag group of overachievers and here were some more ragtag recruits. But there was a quiet energy he carried, buried under a painfully shy demeanor. When he plays, Miguel holds his body in a shoulder-shrugged pose over the ball. He always strikes me as a gentler Cuauhtémoc Blanco.
He started his first game for the Minnesota Stars, an unremarkable nil-nil draw with the Carolina RailHawks. A few games later, he notched his first goal for the Stars in a 2-0 win over the Atlanta Silverbacks. He would go on to add another three goals throughout the season, including the game winner in the first round of the playoffs against the Puerto Rico Islanders.
By the end of that first season, Miguel stood out as someone special. Amidst a team of fighters, he carried some surprises and something of an X-Factor. During the offseason, as the team moved from The Team That Nobody Wanted to the newly branded Minnesota United FC, now owned by Dr. Bill McGuire, Miguel was poised to play a key role. In the preseason, he was used everywhere—he dropped back to the centerbacks to pick the ball up, but was expected to harry the opposition’s defense and spark counter-attacks.
Midway through the season, it was obvious the plan wasn’t working. Ibarra scored only one goal in the spring season and the team slumped to a 6th place finish. On the du Nord Futbol Show, my cohost Bruce McGuire and I reviewed the spring season and put a lot of blame at the feet of Ibarra. He looked lost, like he was trying to do everything and ended up doing nothing. The next day on twitter, Ibarra cryptically “Alright I heard enough time to start proving people wrong.”
And he did. By the end of 2014, buoyed by a new strike partnership with Christian Ramirez, Ibarra had nine goals to his name, the NASL Golden Ball, and a callup to the Men’s National Team. Soccer and Minnesota United were still in infant stages, but Ibarra became a local hero. He returned from national team duty and did a Q&A to hundreds of fans at the National Sports Center in Blaine. A fanbase that was used to just trying to survive was, instead, suddenly boasting this hero. Miguel Ibarra put Minnesota soccer on the national radar when average attendance had just jumped from 2,000 to 6,000.
In 2015, he earned a million dollar transfer to Club Leon in Liga MX, unheard of for a lower division player. Ibarra left Minnesota at halftime during a friendly with Club Leon, swapping his Loon wing for the Leon green and playing the rest of the game in another team’s colors. It was a bittersweet sight, but one that also filled fans with pride. Though he had only come to Minnesota three years before, Miguel was the closest thing we had to a local hero, a nobody who became a somebody right in front of our eyes.
Mexico didn’t work out. Three managers in a year and a half meant he spent all his time fighting for his spot. If there’s anything I had learned about Miguel, it is that he seeks out external reassurance. Negativity or challenges from nobody podcasters was one thing, but he needs a coach on his side, a leader who believes in him. He came back to Minnesota in 2017 a bit beaten, but now reunited with Ramirez and in the place he was adored. But it wasn’t easy on his second time around in Minnesota. He started his first game back—United’s MLS debut in Portland—on the bench. He made his first start in the 2-2 draw against the Colorado Rapids, United’s first point in MLS. In and out of the team that season, he finished with three goals and four assists.
In 2018, he was thrust into a more creative role as Kevin Molino and Ethan Finlay both went down with injuries. With the introduction of Darwin Quintero, the attacking trio of Ibarra, Ramirez, and Quintero became lethal. Even as goals leaked through a Calvo shaped hole at the back, the attack ran rampant. Miguel put up seven goals and eight assists. He had only gotten the starts when the players preferred over him were injured, but Ibarra had taken his chance and ran with it.
2019 started bright as Ibarra scored in the season-starting win over Vancouver. But by the middle of the season, he looked bereft of confidence, unable to buy a goal. He soon found himself on the bench and Heath eventually started brief loanee Wilfried Moimbe-Tahrat out of position in Ibarra’s left wing position. Ibarra would spend the rest of the season on the bench, never earning another minute as a late substitute. As the season ticked down, Ibarra’s fate seemed clear and the biggest kick in the teeth came when Adrian Heath declined to make a third sub in a 1-1 draw with LAFC.
The club declined Ibarra’s option in the off-season and unceremoniously the most important player to wear a Minnesota United jersey was shunted off. The quiet dynamo in the midfield will almost certainly be off to hopefully greener pastures.
It was an end unfitting for the man. When Christian Ramirez left Minnesota United, I wrote that Ramirez was the magic of this club and Miguel Ibarra was its heart. Miguel wasn’t a passionate leader and he wasn’t the sort of magician that Ramirez or Quintero was. Instead, he was a force of nature. He played his heart out on the pitch and quite fittingly wore his heart on his sleeve. He would often tweet inspirational quotes when it was obvious that he was struggling with not getting playing time or not playing as well as he wanted. He was a player that every fan wanted to succeed, because he made you feel like your support mattered.
In many ways, Miguel is part of a bygone era, a nostalgic remnant of a time when Minnesota United felt it needed its fans. The close bond between the fans and players was what saved the club. When Minnesota Stars scored their second goal in the first leg of the NASL playoffs against Tampa Bay. The players immediately darted to the Dark Clouds and became enveloped by supporters who fell over the side boards. As the players and fans melted into one, the man who would save the owner-less team, Dr McGuire watched in the stands. The moment stuck with him.
The Loons will continue to create memories, surely, as this season’s success certainly has proven. However, the roster has become a revolving door, weakening the connections between fans and the team. Few players have stayed in the starting lineup for over 12 months, instead moving in and out of favor. Ramirez was replaced by Rodriguez, who will be replaced in the offseason. Ibarra was replaced by Lod, who if 2019’s numbers are any indication, will be replaced himself. Alexi Gomez, Jose Leiton, Wilfried Moimbe-Tahrat, Franz Pangop: the left wing has been a treasure trove of future trivia questions. In the MLS era, Minnesota has struggled to market itself. Its biggest stars were longtime heroes or didn’t speak English (Quintero and Ibson). So the team has put its fans forward, using their tradition of waving scarves during a corner kick and other traditions as the chief selling point.
The Loons have also increasingly pushed Adrian Heath forward as its face, using his “silence the media” attitude as the center of their playoffs marketing. This campaign met mixed reviews and I have previously expressed that it embraced a negativity and thin-skinned pettiness that doesn’t reflect at least my own belief in this team. And as staff members snipe at fans on social media or the main twitter account announces players’ departures with heartless pop culture references, there is a distinct chasm between the way the team presents itself and the way many fans experience it. And so it’s just as unclear for Minnesota United as it is for Ibarra on what will happen in the post-Ibarra future.
I sat across from Miguel and Christian that night at Bryant Lake Bowl, struggling to pull out the quotes. Christian knew how to get him to talk though as we tried to joke to trick Miguel into saying more. But Miguel doesn’t really like talking about himself or the game. He often resorts to clichés about working hard and just focusing on getting better.
It’s when I convinced a couple of Dark Clouds who just so happened to be playing on a lane to let Miguel and Christian bowl a few that I get to see Miguel at his best. He and Christian made a bet and started taking turns bowling strikes. The two were intense, but silly in their competition. They obviously really wanted to beat the other and for me—someone not very good at anything—I found it funny that they cared so much about winning. So I laughed and they nervously laughed. It was good fun, but by god they wanted to brag over their best friend.
I watched Miguel play over the years and have never loved watching a player more. Certainly, I will miss Quintero’s criminal ending of Clint Irwin’s career, Ibson’s—well—Ibsonity, and Ramirez’s underrated magic, but it’s Miguel who played with every trait I want in a player—the tenacity and the heart.
Ibarra will most likely move on to another club and hopefully there he’ll find a coach that believes in him and if he does, he will thrive. And I will be watching. Miguel Ibarra’s my friend and he’ll keep on fighting to the end.