When Jurgen Klinsmann named the 24-year-old NASL midfielder to his latest U.S. training camp, it caught many soccer pundits by surprise. Here's how Ibarra blazed his trail to the national team,
BY NOW MIGUEL IBARRA
October 14, 2014
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may be the most talked about player in American soccer circles that no one has ever actually seen play. OK, no one outside of hardcore NASL and UC Irvine fans, that is.
Ibarra, of course, is the five-foot-seven attacking midfielder for the second division Minnesota United of the NASL who was summoned from obscurity by Jurgen Klinsmann and is on the roster for tonight’s U.S. national team friendly against Honduras.
Since MLS started in 1996, no player on the roster of a team from the lower divisions of American soccer has been brought into the national team—save for replacement players during collective bargaining disputes.
So Ibarra’s sudden inclusion on the national team, what with there being no labor issues regarding the national team right now, raises all sorts of questions.
Is Ibarra, 24, a late-bloomer who suddenly grew into his ability in his third NASL season?
If not, how was he missed before now and what does he say about the scouting and player evaluation done in this country from the youth to the collegiate to the pro levels?
Why is a player this good playing below MLS?
And what’s being done to make sure future Miguel Ibarras are identified at an earlier age?
POLL: Would You Like to see Ibarra starting tonight?
American soccer is littered with examples of late-bloomers, players who weren’t highly rated as youth or even college players but whose bodies and games suddenly clicked and allowed them to become standout pros—some of whom contributed to the U.S. national team. Chris Wondolowski, Clarence Goodson, Nat Borchers, Lamar Neagle, and Steve Clark all come to mind.
But this does not appear to be the case with Ibarra.
“Miguel, he was pretty developed as a young player. He was very strong technically and he’s got good pace and fitness,” said Chris Volk, the current head coach at UC Irvine who was an assistant coach when Ibarra played his junior and senior collegiate seasons there. “That’s not to say he hasn’t gotten better from high school to junior college to here at UC Irvine and now to the NASL. Any good player is going to improve.
"But he didn’t just put it all together now.”
Ibarra is from Lancaster, Calif., a city of about 150,000 in the high desert about 70 miles northeast of Los Angeles. It doesn’t have a big youth club system and it doesn’t get scouted too often by influential American soccer types.
“I first saw Miguel in his senior year of high school,” said Angelo Cutrono, the head coach at Taft Junior College. “He was playing for a PDL team, the Lancaster Rattlers, and they were playing (Cal State) Fullerton as part of (Fullerton’s) spring season. Miguel, he was dominant in that game. He was blowing past players and hit a couple of absolute 20-25 yard bombs, upper 90. After that game, I figured there’s no way I had a chance to get him because surely this kid must have Division I offers. And if he doesn’t then Fullerton is going to be all over him.”
“But they never approached him,” Cutrona said. “They just missed him. Not just Fullerton, I don‘t want to single those coaches out. He probably would have gotten seen more if he lived some place (more populated) or played on a bigger club. But it’s not like coaches didn’t see him. They saw him and they missed him.”
So Ibarra ended up at Taft, a remotely located school on the edge of the San Joaquin Valley and one of the few junior colleges in California with a dorm system. In 2009, his sophomore season, Ibarra was a junior college All-American and showed enough to get an offer from Irvine.
“He’s not going to wow you physically in terms of his stature,” said George Kuntz, who was Irvine’s head coach when Ibarra played there and is now the head coach at Cal-State Fullerton. (Yes, Ibarra’s college coach is now in charge of the program that neglected to offer him a scholarship despite Ibarra scoring against them.) “But he has amazing fitness. He works so hard and can go hard all game. He picks his spots but he can do things late in a game.
"You don’t see that a lot.”
“He’s got some of that Mexican-American technical side to his game,” Kuntz added. “But he also has a lot of that American player (in him), with the work rate and fitness.”
For years, Latino players in the U.S. have dealt—often unfairly—with stereotypes about their fitness and work rate yet here was Ibarra, a player with great fitness and
skill—and yet he was still overlooked.
At Irvine, Ibarra instantly flashed his playmaking ability, scoring a goal with 10 assists as a junior. As a senior, in 2011, Ibarra added goal-scoring to his attributes, finishing with nine goals and eight assists and being named the Big West Conference offensive player of the year.
That Big West all-conference team also featured the likes of Luis Silva, Rafael Garcia, and Sam Garza. Silva went 4th overall in the 2012 MLS draft and is now starring for D.C. United. Garza earned a Generation Adidas contract and went two picks later to San Jose. Garcia is now in his third season with the Los Angeles Galaxy.
Ibarra, meanwhile, was taken by the Portland Timbers 65th overall.
“How does a player who does what he did in college not go higher in the draft?” Cutrona wondered.
“I’ve coached a lot of players and coached against a lot of players that have gotten drafted and gone on and done good things at the next level,” said Kuntz. “But sometimes I think they spend so much time looking at the physicality, how big a player is, how fast he is. And obviously MLS is a physical league and you need a degree of athleticism to play there. But you also have to be a good soccer player and sometimes I don’t think they look for that as much. Sometimes I think they try and push a square peg through a round hole.”
Since U.S. Soccer founded the developmental academy system in 2007 for elite teenage talent, there has been an increased emphasis on scouting so that players like Ibarra are found at an early age and put in an environment that best enhances their development. The scouts ultimately report to the technical director of U.S. youth soccer, Tab Ramos.
However, some question whether the scouts in place know what to look for in terms of pro prospects.
“They have scouts but they are usually youth coaches with a background in youth soccer,” said a player evaluator for an MLS team. “They might know what to look for to get a player from a youth club to a better academy team or to a good college, but do they know what a good future pro actually looks like?”
Added another MLS scout: “Unless they bring these guys in for a week at a time, have them watch (MLS) training, go to games, watch the national team train, are they going to know what it takes, what to look for? It’s great Tab has these scouts, but there needs to be more of them and more training for them.”
With few MLS teams dedicating resources to scouting, most evaluating of college players is done by coaches in their spare time and by working the phones to people they know and trust. But if who they’re calling is those same scouts who haven’t ever been to an MLS practice…
In Ibarra’s case, he was drafted by the Timbers on the recommendation of assistant coach Amos Magee, who spent time in MLS as a player with Chicago and Tampa Bay.
“He worked really hard for us when he was in camp,” said Timbers technical director Gavin Wilkinson. “He was probably the last player we let go. But we already had a young group of attacking players like Darlington Nagbe, Kalif Alhassan, and Rodney Wallace. Realistically, we didn’t think he was going to get a chance to play and we didn’t have a place to develop him.”
Ironically, Wilkinson’s comments were made hours before the Timbers announced adding a second team that will play in USL Pro next year to serve as a developmental tool.
“If we had a second team then, Miguel would have been perfect for it, "Wilkinson said. "He showed some of his technical ability with us but with Minnesota he’s got a much freer role and he’s able to impose himself on the game more than he ever showed with us. You could say that’s one we got wrong, and that might be fair. But he also wouldn’t have gotten the chance to play like that for us and develop like he has.”
Magee is an old teammate of current Minnesota coach Manny Lagos and when the Timbers let him go in the spring of 2012 Magee gave Lagos a call suggesting he give Ibarra a shot. Lagos did and Ibarra has made the most of it.
“People talk about his talent level but he has great character,” said Lagos, who was a U.S. Olympian and was capped three times by Bruce Arena. “He has a will to become the best pro possible. It doesn’t come easy at the pro level. You have to try every day at this level to get better. A lot of players say they can but Miguel really is one of those who says, everyday, 'How can I get better?'”
Despite being overlooked so many times by so many, Ibarra also followed a path to his national team call-up that, while unorthodox, is reflective of the unique nature of American soccer. Playing PDL ball got him scouted by a junior college coach which in turn led to him playing Division I soccer at UC Irvine. That got him drafted by MLS and led to a chance in the NASL that ultimately caught Klinsmann's eye.
“That does say something about the different ways to success in our country,” said Lagos, whose team, sits atop the NASL standings. “I also think it shows the maturation of our game. We’re getting to the point where the NASL has players that can compete for the national team. I can’t tell you there are others from our league who will get called up. But I know that the 13th to the 25th players on an MLS roster I can’t bring here and have them start and expect to do well in this league.
"In this league you’re playing against established pros and we don’t have the luxury of developing players. We have owners and fans that expect us to win. So the young players that come here have to be able to step in and play right away. And you’re seeing in Miguel a player that can do that and that’s why, I think, Jurgen has given him this shot.”
So why hasn’t an MLS team come for him before now? Money, for one. Before this season Ibarra signed a three-year contract with Minnesota. “I’m not going to say exactly what he’s making,” said Kuntz, “but it’s more than a lot of MLS players his age make. He’s making a good living and playing for a good team and he’s in a good place. Why would he leave?”
Why, indeed? If MLS wants him, it’s going to likely require a transfer fee, something the league has historically been reluctant to pay the lower division teams in this country. Lagos doesn’t know if such an offer will come for his prized player but he knows this: “We’re not going to give him away.”
Finally, some insiders say that as good as Ibarra is, his call-up has as much to do with Klinsmann playing head games with MLS as it does Ibarra’s ability.
“He’s good, but is he more deserving of a cap than Luis Gil or Lee Nguyen?” asked a source who requested anonymity. “But Jurgen is always trying to send a message to MLS, reminding it not to get complacent with player development. Calling up a college kid, like he did with (Stanford’s) Jordan Morris or calling up an NASL player like Ibarra, that’s Jurgen sending a message to MLS."
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Brooke Tunstall is an American Soccer Now contributing editor and ASN 100 panelist. You can follow him on Twitter.