Miguel Ibarra talks NASL rise, Liga MX fall, and why he targeted a Minnesota return
During his first stint in Minnesota, Ibarra was the poster child of many ideals: the first true star for Minnesota United; the first iconic player for the new NASL; most famously, the first second-division player to make the U.S. men’s national team in a decade. After earning three caps under Jurgen Klinsmann, he made a high-profile move to Club Leon, and the sky seemed to be the limit for the winger.
Soon, the coach that signed Ibarra left for greener pastures, and Ibarra was at the bottom of Leon’s depth chart. From there, he played all over the pitch in training but seldom made the matchday roster. This January, he returned to where it all started, rejoining Minnesota United ahead of its first MLS season.
Now, he’s a regular starter again and back on the scoresheet. He opens up like never before in an exclusive interview with FourFourTwo about his mercurial rise, his time with Leon, and of course, his friendship with striker Christian Ramirez.
When you first came to Minnesota in 2012 after going unsigned by Portland, how did you think your career would play out?
To be honest, right when Portland decided to let me go, I was going to finish out my psychology degree at University of California-Irvine. (Former Timbers assistant coach) Amos Magee and (then-head coach) John Spencer met with me, and told me they wanted me, that I was a great player, that they wanted to keep me but they didn’t have a spot open.
After the meeting, Amos came up to me and said he could get me a spot in Minnesota if I wanted to try it. I knew my college teammate, Amani Walker, played here, so I gave him a call. He said it was really cold, but that he loved it. I decided to give it a try.
I didn’t have any goals as far as being a soccer player. Once I got to Minnesota, everything changed.
You were seen as a player with a lot of potential, but who was athletically raw. How were you able to improve your game?
Everybody thought that I was too small to play. My mentality was that I knew I could run, that I could play with the ball, that I could set people up to score. I just kept working on that. I had fun with it. I suddenly had a shot to play soccer again, so I gave it my best shot.
My first year went well. My second year came, and I hit my sophomore slump. It pissed me off. I knew I could do better, so I flipped the switch and went up from there.
When did you start hearing from Jurgen Klinsmann and his staff?
It was early 2014, against San Antonio. He sent Tab Ramos to scout Christian, who was scoring a lot. I scored two goals that game, and Tab went back to Jurgen and recommended me instead. He said I had a lot of potential.
I got the call from Jurgen while I was eating Chipotle with Christian. I honestly thought it was a prank! I kept asking questions and would’ve hung up if it wasn’t for his accent. Christian was in shock like I was.
And then it was a whirlwind from there, wasn’t it?
My whole life change. [Jurgen] asked me if I wanted to play for the United States, and I said I’d love to. I went into camp, and he put me in against Honduras. Afterward, he shook my hand and told me that I was a national team player. He wanted me to keep that in my head.
You get back from the call-up, you win the NASL Golden Ball. Transfer offers from Liga MX started coming in once 2015 rolled around. How close were you to leaving that winter?
Really close, actually. Everything was set up for me to go to Chivas. It was just a matter of negotiating with the team and signing the contract. Later, I got called up (in June 2015) against Germany. We won that game, and I got to the locker room and my phone had blown up. I checked and saw that Minnesota had agreed to terms with Club Leon. At the time, William Yarborough was my roommate for the national team, so he made a few phone calls. From there, I talked to the coach (Juan Antonio Pizzi) and to Manny Lagos.
Leon played a friendly against Minnesota right after the transfer, and you played one half for each team. How emotional was that for you?
It was really emotional to switch jerseys at halftime. I thought it would be my last half playing with them. It was amazing, it was where it all started. My dream had just come true by going to Liga MX.
Did anything seem different once you got to Leon?
Everyone was really welcoming. We were doing two-a-days in preseason, and they all said they were impressed by my fitness levels. Then, Pizzi took the job coaching the Chilean national team. He was the one who brought me in, gave me appearances, and I had just been getting used to Liga MX. I got a couple goals under him and was about to start for them in year two. From there, the new coach (Luis Fernando Tena) came in and knew nothing about me.
Were you still in touch with Klinsmann and the U.S. at that point?
I actually got a call from Jurgen in early 2016 just after Pizzi had left. Jurgen wanted me to join the team for their next qualifiers, but Tena said he wanted to play me in the next game. He blocked the call-up. It turned out that he didn’t put me in, and it didn’t make sense why he wouldn’t let me go with the national team. From there, he wanted to play me as a left back, so everything went from there.
Put those psychology courses to use: You’re changing positions, changing coaches, the national team window starts to close. How did you keep working through that?
I had to be mentally strong. I knew it was a new coach and he saw me as the future at left back because of my pace. Wherever the coach wanted me to play, I had to make the best of it. I wanted to prove to him that I could play. I was starting again at left back for the Copa and the next week I was supposed to start in Liga. Then Tena got fired (after seven months) and Javier Torrente came in. Again, he didn’t know anything about me. Day one, we were playing 11-v-11. He showed me the team – I was at center back! I was in shock. One of the players came up to him and corrected him, so he moved me to left back. He liked me a lot as a defensive mid, so he tried me there a bit too.
Did all of these positional changes start to get to you?
Actually, yeah. As a matter of fact, playing a couple months straight at left back kind of made it hard to return to the wing in Minnesota. It started to show that I hadn’t played midfield for a long time. At the beginning, I couldn’t get used to playing forward and going in the attack. I will say that it did help me a lot defensively. Manny said that I’d improved defensively, but we both agreed that I needed to get my legs back and my confidence playing forward.
Was there any point during your second year at Leon where you were thinking that you should’ve stayed in Minnesota?
Yeah, the day that the coach penciled me in at center back. We weren’t getting the results we wanted, and I still wasn’t getting on the field. He came out in the media and told them that out of all the players, he thought I would get the least time out of anybody. Once he said that, I screenshotted it, sent it to my agent, and told him that I had to move. I didn’t want to spend another six months with the U-20s or on the bench.
Were there other teams you thought you’d go to before Minnesota came up?
In Liga MX, yeah. There were a couple teams out that wanted me. I told my agent that I didn’t want to play in Mexico. I thought the best move for me would be to go back to Minnesota. That’s where it started, and that’s where I’m most comfortable. They wanted to send me on a loan, and I said it’d just be better if it was permanent. They agreed, and we made it work.
At the same time, Christian was weighing offers from clubs in Mexico. Did your experience with Leon influence him?
He knew everything I’d gone through. We’d talked a lot while I was there. He called me to ask what I thought about going to Mexico. I told him he’d love playing here, but it was a lot of competition at striker. Every team wants a star up top, and they’re paying the most for strikers. He would’ve been the third choice for a team like Santos, who had made him an offer, behind Djaniny and [Julio] Furch. They both made more than he would’ve. He had to decide between making more and playing more. Ultimately, it worked out for us both to come back to Minnesota.
Are you playing the best soccer you ever have, or do you think there’s still another level for you to hit?
I think I’m finally getting back to where I was before I left Minnesota. The confidence level is back; I finally get their playing style. It’s a totally different system. I’m used to staying out wide, and they want me to cut inside to the pockets and create chances. It was a matter of me fitting that style, and I’m getting used to it. It was hard at first when I wasn’t playing because I was afraid I wouldn’t get into game shape. You could tell at first. I was cramping in the second half of games because I wasn’t used to it. Now, I don’t cramp anymore after games. I still have more that I’m capable of that I haven’t hit yet.
Wing is a position of flux for the national team right now. Do you know if you’re in the plans for Bruce Arena moving forward?
Gyasi Zardes and I talked about that this weekend. He told me to keep it up and that Bruce would love to have me. Gyasi said that I’m the type of player that Bruce likes to play, and that I should keep doing what I’m doing: getting goals, getting assists, helping Christian win the Golden Boot this year; that would be big. I have to keep working hard.