Dark Clouds over Ibarra Watch

This weekend I’m heading up to northern Minnesota to visit my in-laws for a week. On the way, my wife and I are going to the National Sports Center in Blaine to see Minnesota United’s last game of the Spring against the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers. It might also be the last time we see Miguel Ibarra.

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Photo courtesy of Minnesota United

In fact, it might not even be an opportunity to see Ibarra, since he will have just returned from being with the US national team for its two shocking wins over the Netherlands and Germany. Unfortunately, Ibarra didn’t see any action in those two matches, but it’s been his presence with the national team that has helped to drive up the attacking midfielder’s value. More savvy soccer writers than I are already all over the rumors surrounding him. 

This week rumors began to spin that the LigaMX team Club Leon had acquired Ibarra and that he’d be joining the team for the second half of the season. LigaMX, Mexico’s top division and the highest quality league in North America, has a similar schedule to the NASL, the US second division, of a Spring and a Fall session with a month break in-between. So if true, Ibarra could join Leon before the NASL begins its Fall season on the 4th of July.

Minnesota United supporters have know that this was coming for some time. Perhaps not that their best and arguably most loved player was going to Leon but that he was going. After his MVP year in 2014, being named to his second consecutive Best XI, and becoming the first second division player since 2005 to get a US national team call up, it was obvious that Ibarra was going to move on to if not a bigger club then one with deeper pockets.

Minnesota United FC midfielder Miguel Ibarra earned his first appearance with the U.S. national team in its friendly match with Honduras on Oct. 14, 2014 in Boca Raton, Fla. The USMNT tied Honduras 1-1 during an international friendly at FAU Stadium. Photo courtesy of U.S. Soccer.

Photo courtesy of U.S. Soccer.

It turns out that club was in Mexico, because the US first division is staunchly against buying players (preferring to sign out of contract players). Because MLS (the league and not its ‘teams,’ which are really just brands) owns all its players, the decision to pay what the international transfer market values for a player is under the control of the league office. This is why money can be found to redeem Clint Dempsey’s career and fill Toronto FC with talent and on par with QPR but spending the reported $1 million to transfer Ibarra is something to balk at.

That last paragraph is filled with sour grapes on my part. I was still holding onto the dream that Minnesota United having bought into Major League Soccer would still have Ibarra when it joined (estimated for 2017/18). It was a pipe dream and complaining about the labyrinthine or, rather, off-the-cuff rule making of MLS is just a tantrum. I’m going to miss Miguel.

A greater concern I have is how this transfer will affect Minnesota United. With Ibarra gone, Minnesota loses its best winger, most dynamic central attacking midfielder, and the player with the best chemistry with forward Christian Ramirez. Minnesota have settled into a 4-2-3-1 formation. In this formation, the midfield runs the show using two defensive midfielders (typically Aaron Pitchkolan and Juliano Vicentini) with two wingers and a central attacking mid that can also be seen as a withdrawn forward/shadow striker. With Ibarra, Minnesota had a player who could dominate the left wing, drift centrally and be equally as dangerous, and then even switch with the right winger to unbalance the opposition. He thrived in and helped make the system fluid, fast, and skilled.

Although Minnesota have quality players, I don’t see the 4-2-3-1 has staying effective without Ibarra. If the attacking midfielders become Jonny Steele, Ibson, and Daniel Mendes, then I foresee a vast decline in pace. If Minnesota elects to roll out Kalif Alhassan, JC Banks, and Steele/Mendes, then the pace question is satisfied but strength is lost. You can shuffle these names as you see fit, it’s one of the strengths of Minnesota, yet at some point (the earlier, the better) a standard set needs to emerge for the Fall. 

I’m a big fan of Alhassan, but he feels more effective as a deep lying center mid than a winger or central attacking mid. Banks has, arguably, been more successful than Steele, but when you’re out of form (as Steele has been) it’s unfair to rush to conclusions. Many supporters are less than impressed with Ibson but having been hampered most of the Spring by injury it would be unfair to write him off. It’s Mendes that most concerns me as he has been injured and out of form for the entire Spring. Perhaps, with Ibarra’s departure the solution isn’t fitting pieces into his slot but changing the slots.

1272462_NSC_Minnesota

Minnesota has had a very good defense this year, but it’s attack has been middling. With Ibarra departing, I worry the attacking will thin. I would contend that inserting forward Christian Ramirez alongside Pablo Campos resolves a lot of issues. A 4-4-2 formation or, if you’d prefer, a 4-2-2-2 would give Minnesota the same if not more potency in attack while making best use of the squad’s depth. The wings become the domain of Banks, Steele, Mendes, and, if necessary, Alhassan with the center of the pitch a rotation of Pitchkolan, Vicentini, Ibson, and Alhassan. 

This is all just guesswork, really. Until Minnesota United announce that Ibarra is departing and when, it makes little sense to panic. If he does go down Mexico way, Minnesota will have gotten a pretty penny out of it and that will definitely go towards finding if not one then a few new faces.

When I first dragged my wife and in-laws to see Minnesota play, the team was in its Minnesota Stars phase and a good year plus away from becoming Minnesota United. My in-laws didn’t really know much about soccer, but they quickly discovered watching it live was damn fun. Hearing the Dark Clouds cheer and seeing quality play won them over. My father-in-law immediately noticed Miguel Ibarra. He was shocked by just how much hustle Ibarra had, how determined and fast he was. My father-in-law left that first game with a favorite player–Miguel Ibarra.

My wife has come to love Minnesota United, too.

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My wife surrounded by Brazilians after a match against Indy Eleven in Indianapolis–Pablo Campos, Juliano Vicentini, Tiago Calvano, & Cristiano Dias

And she and more than a few other supporters are not taking the news of Ibarra’s departure well.

I’m going to miss Miguel. I’m pleading with the soccer gods that we’ll get to see him against Ft. Lauderdale, see him wear the Loons jersey one last time.

But I guess I’ve found a LigaMX team to support. One more team to add to the roster.

Club-Leon

Good luck Miguel Ibarra. Watching you play has been a delight, and I hope to see even greater things from you.

***Update***

It wasn’t too long after I wrote this that Minnesota United made it official.

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