After more than a year and a half away, Miguel Ibarra’s path back to Minnesota hasn’t exactly been smooth. By Ibarra’s own admission his first season back stateside was a rocky homecoming, but his disappointing 2017 charted a course for the renaissance that has turned the midfielder into arguably the squad’s most indispensable player in 2018.
When Ibarra signed with the Loons in January 2017, we were all flooded with visions of the dynamic player who dazzled for MNUFC in the NASL for four seasons. Ibarra showed glimpses of his game-breaking ability in the team’s inaugural MLS season, but they were only that. Inconsistency hampered his return and forced Ibarra to re-evaluate his approach.
“I would play well one game and the next one it was back to looking like I had not played in a long time,” Ibarra said. “It was on and off for me. I should be able to do this every game and every weekend. My mentality had to change.”
You can attribute Ibarra’s up-and-down 2017, in part, to a lack of fitness stemming from a dearth of playing time after moving from the NASL to Liga MX’s Club Leon in June 2015. After his breakout 2014 NASL season — which saw him become the first second division player in nearly a decade to be called up by the USMNT — Ibarra hoped to take his career to the next level in Mexico but was instead beset by hamstring issues and an ensuing crisis of confidence, only ever making eight league appearances for Leon.
Anyone who has watched Ibarra knows his legs and pace are integral to his game. The speedy midfielder is relentless in pursuit of the ball in wide areas and covers more ground on a match-to-match basis than most, if not all, other players in MLS. That is when Ibarra is at his best, but it never quite came together either in Mexico or last season and he was driven to reclaim his game in the offseason.
“In the offseason my first thing was to stay healthy and make sure I get my legs back,” Ibarra said. “Christian helped me do that. I came out in preseason and made sure I erased everything from my past from my head and cleared everything up.”
Alongside forward Christian Ramirez in their native California, a determined Ibarra spent the offseason changing the way he trained and changing the way he ate. He played games against other MLS players, molded his diet after Ramirez’s and reported for preseason in Minnesota a few weeks early to work with MNUFC Head of Fitness and Sports Science Jarryd Phillips on improving his fitness with a focus on both endurance and high speed running.
“He has found his legs, which is key for him,” Ramirez said. “Going off and on, injury-wise, in Mexico for 18 months did not really help him. Last year it took him some time to get his legs. He showed glimpses of it, but now that he is consistently out there he has shown results and gotten on the stat sheet.”
Still, though, Ibarra opened 2018 on the outside of the starting XI looking in and still looking to earn Head Coach Adrian Heath’s trust. He waited for an opportunity — which finally came in the wake of season-ending injuries to midfielders Kevin Molino and Ethan Finlay — and has not looked back.
In 19 appearances this season, Ibarra’s five assists lead the Loons and his five goals are tied for second. He has been at his best in pivotal moments with three game-winning assists and two game-winning goals — regaining the stellar form that impressed then-USMNT Head Coach Jurgen Klinsmann and made him an NASL Best XI selection in 2013 and 2014 and the league’s 2014 Golden Ball winner.
Though he is quick to credit teammates like Ramirez or forward Darwin Quintero — whom he said saw his potential and told him he had more to give — it is evident the player known for his on-field work ethic is back to where he wants to be because of his commitment to exceed that effort off of it.
“I am probably back to where I was right before I left for Mexico and I think I am getting even better now,” Ibarra said. “I have players around me that are giving me that confidence. A bunch of players — Darwin, Christian, Calvo — have told me I look even better than I did when they saw videos or saw me play before coming here.
“My confidence just keeps rising,” he said.