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Miguel Ibarra’s likely exit leaves Minnesota United fans reeling

Miguel Ibarra had been synonymous with Minnesota United for years, and now he’s gone.

ST. PAUL, Minn. — In the 77th minute of Minnesota United FC’s Oct. 20 playoff game against the Los Angeles Galaxy, coach Adrian Heath used his third and final substitution to bring on forward Abu Danladi for midfielder Robin Lod. As Danladi was announced, longtime Loons winger Miguel Ibarra, who had been warming up on the sideline, crumpled against the Allianz Field video boards with head in hands.

Minnesota would go onto to lose, 2-1, and it may have been Ibarra’s last chance to feature for the Loons. Minnesota United announced Thursday the club had declined Ibarra’s 2020 contract option and its roster heading into the offseason did not include Ibarra.

Ibarra saw his playing time fall to 1,632 minutes in 2019 — his lowest with Minnesota United since 2015 when he was sold to Liga MX side Club León midway through the Loons’ season — and he tallied just one goal and two assists in 22 MLS games. As things stand, Ibarra’s second tenure with the Loons looks like it has come to disappointing end.

The news came as a surprise to many since the Athletic’s Jeff Rueter had reported there was interest from multiple teams in trading for Ibarra. Barring a new contact, Ibarra will head to the Re-Entry Draft, and Minnesota will receive nothing but salary cap space in return for his departure.

Minnesota United technical director Mark Watson told the St. Paul Pioneer Press that the team is open to bringing Ibarra back for the 2020 season, but not at the $342,000 Ibarra earned this past season.

“I want to reiterate this is a contractual decision for 2020,” Watson said, “and we are hoping that if he does get through the different process, we could potentially have him back at a different number.”

For his part, Ibarra bid farewell to fans, ownership, coaches and teammates in Minnesota, suggesting the likelihood of his remaining in Minnesota is small.

Centerback Brent Kallman is the only player remaining on the Loons’ roster who played for the team during its North American Soccer League days, with Ibarra’s departure coming a season after the Superman to his Batman — forward Christian Ramirez — was traded away for allocation money.

The loss of those former NASL players might not mean much to people outside of the Land of 10,000 Lakes, but for many soccer fans in Minnesota, that history is important. And so too is Ibarra, who played seven seasons for Minnesota.

“I have two Ibarra scarves. How many [Minnesota] players have gotten a scarf in the last 10 years?” asked Teresa Petersen, who has been a member of Minnesota’s oldest supporters’ group, the Dark Clouds, since 2007.

A succession of professional teams — the Minnesota Thunder (1995-2009), Minnesota Stars (2010-2012) and Minnesota United (2013-present) — have been connected by an unbroken thread of supporters, players and coaches that link those past and current organizations. Ibarra, having debuted for the Stars back in 2012, will forever be a part of the tapestry woven from it.

“I think that to a lot of fans, Ibarra embodied the spirit of the last few years in the NASL,” said David Smith, who has regularly attended games since 2009. “He was the little guy who could make it in the bigger league.”

It was a phone call that first brought Ibarra to Minnesota.

Current MNUFC director of player personnel Amos Magee was working for the Timbers in 2012, and the Timbers had just cut Ibarra after having selected him with the 27th pick of that year’s Suppliment Draft. Magee rang up his old Thunder teammate, Manny Lagos — who happened to be Minnesota’s head coach — to suggest Lagos sign Ibarra to the latter’s first professional contact.

That contract would follow. Along with it, two NASL Best XI selections (2013, 2014), an NASL most valuable player award (2014) and a stunning call-up to the USMNT as a second-division player in 2014.

“[Ibarra] helped show the soccer community in America that MNUFC had something special brewing, him being called up to the national team,” said former Dark Clouds president Abraham Opoti.

It was a rapid rise that saw Ibarra come into his own on and off the field. Many recall how shy the California native was when he first arrived.

Opoti remembers when Ibarra, out due to injury, showed up in the supporters’ section at the National Sports Center in street clothes during an NASL game.

“He couldn’t bear to be away from the game. I nearly talked him into leading a chant or two, but he didn’t want all the attention,” Opoti said. “He just wanted to be around us. That was great.”

Jim Oliver, who first started going to games in 2008, shared a similar recollection.

“I always remember him in his first year,” Oliver said. “Ibarra was super shy, but those were still the days where everybody had to show up for everything, so you’d see this kid looking around for ways to make himself useful. He helped the Dark Clouds hang up jerseys for a charity auction once.”

Well-earned confidence born of success attracted attention from abroad, and eventually led to a near million-dollar transfer fee for Ibarra from León. Injuries and coaching changes kept Ibarra from making the kind of impact in Mexico he had hoped to have, but opened the door for a return to Minnesota.

The Loons used a fourth-round 2016 Expansion Draft pick on goalkeeper Jeff Attinella before flipping Attinella to Portland in exchange for a second-round SuperDraft pick and Ibarra’s discovery rights. Then, on January 5, 2017, the club announced it had signed both Ibarra and Ramirez to MLS contracts ahead of its debut season in the first division.

Eighty-four league appearances containing 11 goals and 14 assists would follow spread across three seasons. 

“When we made the transition to MLS, there was an obvious chasm between the talent we faced and the talent brought in to represent us,” Smith said. “One of the few things that gave me hope was that there was Ibarra — a guy who’d been with us for years — who was willing to give us everything, to at least try to work his way across that gap when the new guys we brought in often didn’t. I think deserved more respect than he was given for that effort.”

Now, Minnesota United faces a future without one of its most-loved players.

Oliver said his reaction to Ibarra’s release was “furious anger.”

“I understand he didn’t have a productive year in 2019, but I also don’t think he was put in a position to succeed,” Oliver said. “Maybe he’s not the kind of guy you build a whole team around, but I just don’t believe there aren’t teams in the league that would have paid for somebody to be a connecting midfielder like he is without putting so much pressure on him to arrive late and put a threat on goal. I’ve said it on Twitter before, I think we wasted him this year.”

When asked for his reaction, Smith asked, “Does wordless screaming count?”

As Petersen put it: “It’s been great to watch him grow from the new guy to the national team guy. We wished him a heartfelt goodbye once, then joyously welcomed him back. He has a great future, and I can’t wait to see him shine under a new coaching staff.”

Dark Clouds co-founder Bruce McGuire (no relation to team owner Dr. William McGuire) said there’s a memory that will remain in Minnesota even if Ibarra moves on.

“I keep coming back to an image Miguel patrolling the middle of the field in a hybrid No. 8/No. 10 role with freedom to cruise sideline to sideline,” McGuire said. “He would chase down the opponent who was trying to get out of their own end. Then Miguel would strip the ball and find the shortest path to goal. A quick flick to a teammate and bang, the ball is in the back of the net. The other team never knew what had just happened.”

“I can close my eyes and watch a play like that flash through my mind over and over again. Pure Miguel Ibarra magic.”

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