Watch Ibson Barreto da Silva play soccer for any amount of time and you’ll miss something. He’s scored no goals and notched just three assists so far this MLS season, meaning you might be forgiven for thinking he doesn’t do much. But measuring a player’s value strictly by the boxscore has never been wise. Dig a bit deeper and you’ll uncover this: Ibson leads MLS in touches per 90 minutes for players who’ve played at least 800 minutes on the year with 97.11, edging out the Chicago Fire’s Bastian Schweinsteiger by more than three touches per 90.
This, though, is simply another — albeit slightly more nuanced — number. It’s not just about the volume of touches he gets, but the multitude of ways he uses them. His physical contributions to the play on the field are subtle: a trap that settles a slightly errant pass and instantly smooths out and organizes the run of play; a quick sequence of tapped dribbles that suddenly breaks off and goes in the opposite direction, leaving a defender wrong-footed in its wake; an unexpected through-pass that carves its way between defenders to the guy who gets it to the guy who puts it in the net. Not that he isn't capable of dazzling play as well.
“From my point of view,” says midfielder Kevin Molino, “he’s the best player on our team this year. When you look at his qualities, it’s no surprise. I played with Kaká and he’s fantastic, too, but Ibson is up there amongst the best I have played with.”
“He’s a natural footballer,” says Head Coach Adrian Heath, “beautiful first touch, great vision, great awareness, which is what you need to be a top player.” But as impressive as his physical skills can be in the moment, both Heath and his teammates talk even more about how he uses those skills and what he does without the ball.
“His calmness with the ball,” says forward Christian Ramirez when asked about Ibson’s best qualities. “No matter who's around him, he's super calm. His intricate little movements that get him out of spaces — because he's not the fastest guy — but he's got those little steps and ball movement that are so decisive.”
Along with his partner in the central midfield, Sam Cronin, he is the lever that moves the ball from defense to offense or that stops an onrushing attack with an interception and directs the action back to his teammates. The next time you’re enjoying a match, spend some time watching how Ibson and Cronin move around in space without the ball, shifting left or right to snuff out or overload an area, or opening up safety valves for defenders looking to push the ball out or attackers stymied at the edge of the box.
“When we started the season poorly,” says Heath, “it took people like him coming into the group to actually get some momentum. When we had the little run of games where we started to win games at home — I think he was the fulcrum of that. He was a catalyst for a lot of the good stuff we did.”
At 33, Ibson is a veteran who played for Flamengo —the biggest club in his native Brazil — FC Porto in Portugal and FC Spartak Moscow in Russia before coming to Minnesota. He knows what it takes to win at the sport’s highest levels, even if he didn’t always have to push himself to those heights when MNUFC was part of the NASL.
“I think he's got that bite this year, where last year or the year before he could just cruise through,” says Ramirez. “There were games in the NASL where you saw what he's doing game in and game out this year. He's shown new life in his legs and he continues to get better and push other guys. He's got this competitive nature to him that very few guys know how to have and that's something I especially have taken from him: how he plays every game so competitive and hates to lose, comes into the locker room throwing stuff, trying to rile the guys up because he's so competitive. When he crosses the white line, he's a whole different animal.”
Assistant Coach Ian Fuller — who worked with Ibson last year as well — echoes that sentiment. “When he crosses the white line, he's very demanding and incredibly intense,” he says. “That's the biggest thing about his leadership: not much of a talker because it's not his native tongue, but he speaks by the way he plays.”
If you put all these elements together — the physical skill and touch, the vision, the ability to read the game, the competitive drive — you’d have the makings of a top-flight player, but what’s made Ibson particularly good for this particular team at this particular time is that he’s this driven at an age when he could be settling.
“I know what it's like,” says Heath. “I was fortunate enough to play until I was 36 and I know what it takes once you get to 32, 33. You have to shake yourself up some mornings — it's an effort to do it. But because that's your nature, you do it. That might sound simple, but trust me, it’s becoming more and more difficult to get people who — every single day — come out and give you their maximum just because they love playing football.”
“Him being here for a few years, it means a lot for him to play for this club,” says Fuller. “We need that right now. He's carrying that torch and everybody feeds off that.”
When the season began, the team knew what they wanted to find on their roster, but it wasn’t clear where it would come from. They were hoping the players carried over from last season’s NASL team would rise to the occasion; they were hoping the veterans they brought in from MLS and abroad would bring stability and experience; and they were hoping that some of the unknown quantities and younger players would provide things they weren’t expecting.
In a way, Ibson has provided a bit of all of this, quietly and consistently, and in doing so has made himself integral to the team, even though he didn’t see the pitch until the third match of the season and didn’t start until the fourth. He might not make the highlight reels after the match; he might end the season without giving one interview to the media. But he’s there, with the ball at his feet more often than any other player in the league, and the joy and intensity with which he plays is there, should you go and look for it.
“I use him as a role model for a lot of our young ones,” says Heath. “I go, ‘If you want to see what it takes to be a good professional and what you need to bring to be a good professional, look no further than Ibson.’”