Miguel Ibarra’s path back to Minnesota began at a wedding. It wasn’t quite a scene out of a movie, a “Godfather”-esque business meeting in the back of some aging mansion. The discussions were informal, surrounded by friends in sunny California, near the beach, far away from a state and club he called home for years.
In the months prior, there were several stop-and-start moments. There were times when a homecoming seemed logical, and others when Ibarra himself couldn’t fathom a scenario that saw him return to the cold. But at Christian Ramirez’s wedding in early December, the groom and one of his closest friends finally just said, “Why not?” Longtime jokes turned into legitimate conversations. Playful jabs turned into questions that actually had answers. Finally, a reunion took shape, and Ibarra was home.
Ibarra and Ramirez were announced as Minnesota United’s latest signings on Thursday afternoon, bringing Ibarra home after a year and a half with Mexican side Club Leon. On the surface, the time seems like a short stint in the soccer world, but it was during that period Ibarra faced some of his toughest tests.
Now, back at a club that has always meant so much to him, Ibarra is looking towards his toughest challenge yet: helping lead a team that is being built from the ground up while rekindling some of the magic that made him Minnesota United’s first true superstar.
“It’s a different vibe,” Ibarra told SBI. “The move to MLS, it’s a different vibe. The club has a lot of goals they have to reach and everything they’ve told me, it’s all amazing. The plans they have, the stadium they’re building, the players they’ve signed so far, you can tell I’m excited.
“I was born in Lancaster (California), but starting my career here and coming back, it’s like I’m right back home. I’m motivated, I’m excited and I can’t wait to get started.”
Ibarra’s career began with humble beginnings. Drafted by the Portland Timbers in the 2012 Supplemental Draft, Ibarra was left unsigned as the club marched on toward the 2012 season. Minnesota United made him feel wanted, gave him a chance. It was Ibarra’s first professional club, and that connection still feels very real to him all these years later.
When the time eventually came in the summer of 2015, Ibarra departed the club as the closest thing to a modern NASL star. Widely viewed as the league’s most dynamic player, Ibarra broke barriers in late 2014 when he became the first second-division player to earn a U.S. Men’s National Team call-up in nearly a decade. A dream move to Mexico was calling, and Ibarra couldn’t turn it down.
The move, in many ways, was tough. Ibarra’s first three years were marred by coaching changes, as he made just eight appearances and scored just one goal throughout his Leon stay. Juan Antonio Pizzi, the manager that saw potential in the young midfielder and brought him in from Minnesota, left six months after Ibarra’s arrival in favor of a chance to manage the Chilean national team. His successor, Luis Fernando Tena, lasted just seven months before being fired. Javier Torrente, the club’s current manager, joined in September, and Ibarra saw the writing on the wall.
It was a difficult period, even if teammates like Mexican international Luis Montes and William Yarbrough helped ease the transition. A longtime Liga MX vet, Montes regularly told Ibarra to simply let loose and be the player he was with Minnesota United. However, largely played as an outside midfielder during his career, Ibarra was tasked with becoming a left back. He struggled with the defensive aspects of the game, a characteristic that he felt improved during his stay with the club.
Ibarra entered the offseason determined to make it work, but he certainly heard the rumors. It was time to go, and a familiar club was calling.
The midfielder thought back to a June moment, one that he says he’ll remember for years to come. He returned to Minnesota as a member of Club Leon, standing on the opposite sideline of a friendly that, in many ways, was arranged to honor his contributions to the club. At that moment, on the field with thousands of Minnesotans screaming his name, he felt something and, several months later, he felt something again as his time in Mexico came to a close.
“Coming back and seeing how the fans received me, the players from Leon were shocked,” Ibarra said of the friendly between his two clubs. “‘Man, they love you over there. Why would you ever leave?’ They always asked me that. I took the opportunity, and I thought going to Mexico would be a good experience, and I thought it was the right move to make at the time. The players and coaches, they were shocked. Coming back is amazing. It’s like home.
“The teammates I had at Leon welcomed me like any other player,” he added. “I watched them play in the World Cup, there were big names there. It was just getting experience from them and all of the knowledge from them and how they see the game.”
Ibarra now returns to a soccer landscape that is vastly different than the one he left. There are familiar faces, like Ramirez, who will almost certainly welcome Ibarra on his couch at some point in the coming weeks. There’s sporting director Manny Lagos, Ibarra’s former head coach and a longtime advocate of the midfielder’s talent.
The newest, and perhaps most important face, is Adrian Heath. The former Orlando City manager has been through the expansion process before, seen what it takes to navigate the first season of MLS play. He’s an attacking manager by design, one whose reputation as a player’s coach precedes him in Ibarra’s eyes.
Heath will now have the benefit of adding two players that ran rampant through the NASL as a unit. Formerly the league’s most valuable player, Ibarra’s playmaking and goalscoring touch elevated him to stardom. Ramirez, meanwhile, simply continued to thrive even following Ibarra’s departure while scoring a total of 51 goals in just 90 NASL appearances.
Now, the two will be back together, bringing familiarity to a team that has just 11 total players ahead of preseason. There’s still a lot of roster building left to do, but Ibarra and Ramirez bring some sort of faith and goodwill to a team that will once again feature two locally made heroes.
“I’m extremely excited about these players,” Heath said of the duo. “Christian and Miguel have proven themselves in this market before as both on-field and off-field assets. They wanted to be back here in Minnesota to be a part of what we are doing with this club and in this community. I can’t wait to begin working with each of them.”
Ibarra echoed the sentiments, stating just how excited he was to return to the field. At the moment, it’s his sole focus, even if a return to the USMNT remains in the back of his mind. When his signing was announced, texts flew in from the likes of former USMNT teammates like Gyasi Zardes and Darlington Nagbe, two players Ibarra now counts as friends.
With Bruce Arena now in charge of the national team, Ibarra has two new coaches to impress as he looks to further his career for both club and country. He’s a player who never really feels comfortable with his current standing, especially after several years of being told he wasn’t good enough to play at MLS level.
Now, he’s there, but that chip still remains as he looks to prove himself at a new challenge with a familiar club.
“I came into the NASL not known,” he said. “I made it to the national team, then to Leon. There’s always that chip that you have to prove yourself, and that you can play at the level you’re going to. Now in MLS, we have to prove that we can play here and help the team out in any way that we can.
“That’s always been a dream of mine, playing in MLS, and that’s exciting for me. Playing our first game, getting started, getting the players, the coaches and getting to work. I’m motivated, and I’m excited to be back.”