When Minnesota United FC midfielder Miguel Ibarra received his first U.S. Men’s National Team call-up from Jurgen Klinsmann last fall, it turned some heads, including his own.
“I was caught off-guard. I didn't know if it was a prank or not,” he told media last October.
Given history, the reaction is understandable.
Selected late in the 2012 MLS Supplemental Draft by the Portland Timbers, Ibarra was cut before the season began, only to be picked up later by Minnesota in the North American Soccer League.
Though his Portland turn served an early blow, United head coach Manny Lagos showed faith in his abilities early during his tenure with the club. The Lancaster, California product repaid it in droves, going on to amass 14 goals and 13 assists in 81 appearances during his first three seasons in the Twin Cities.
Of those, his four goals and an assist last September won him the league’s Player of the Month award and was likely determining factor when Klinsmann named him to the U.S. squad for friendlies against Ecuador and Honduras the following month.
Miguel Ibarra prepares a running volley while in training with the MNT in Zurich, Switzerland.
“While it was surprising, the call-up was well-earned,” Lagos told ussoccer.com. “There was a lot of pride from this organization, a lot of pride that he deserved this because he’s a good guy, a good person and he worked so hard.”
Preparing to enter U.S. camp, Ibarra leaned on Lagos, who had his own run with the U.S. team leading up to the 2002 FIFA World Cup, for advice.
“Since the first time I went to Minnesota, Manny’s given me confidence,” Ibarra said. “He knew I could play. He’s always telling me do what I do best. When I got called up he said, ‘just do what you do in Minnesota, you’ll be fine.’ Him giving me confidence and telling me to take advice from players, listen to Jurgen - I’ve taken every piece that he’s given me.”
With the summons, Ibarra became the first U.S. second division player to earn a look with the MNT since Clyde Simms, then with the Richmond Kickers, took part in two camps and earned a single cap in a friendly with England in May 2005.
Like Simms that day in Chicago, Ibarra made a stoppage time cameo in the USA’s 1-1 draw with Honduras last October 14 in Boca Raton. Having achieved his first cap before ever playing in the American top-flight, Ibarra returned to Minnesota where he was named to his second straight NASL Best XI and also won the league’s Golden Ball as Most Valuable Player.
While Simms did utilize his U.S. soiree to earn an MLS contract with D.C. United, the appearance against England was the end of his international career. Conversely, the 24-year-old Ibarra was called into his fourth-straight National Team camp on Sunday after earning his first start in the team’s 2-0 victory against Panama last month.
Miguel Ibarra takes on Panama's Leonel Parris in the USA's 2-0 win at StubHub Center on Feb. 8, 2015.
“He has a lot of cards in his pockets,” Klinsmann told reporters in the lead-up to that match. “He's an endless runner, he can tie up [defenders], he's technically very gifted, he has a great vision, he sees through people to play the killer balls, he's not afraid in front of the goal to finish things himself. There's a huge amount of talent there, and while he's in the middle of that process, he's developing a personality.”
As Ibarra has adjusted to being a big fish in the smaller NASL pond, Lagos said he’s handled the extra attention and responsibility that comes with it like a true pro.
“You try to get them to be able to look short-term and long-term and stay focused on what a soccer career is. It’s both National Team and club, and both are going really well for Miguel right now. He’s had to absorb new stresses from an expectation standpoint and from a leadership standpoint, and he’s done very well.”
“It’s important for him to stay focused to always try to get better. There are times when you get accolades and you can become complacent. The biggest thing for him is to use these call ups and the growth of our team to continue to get better.”
While the new-found attention brought with it offseason rumors that Ibarra may be off to an MLS club this season, nothing came of it. Instead, he’ll kick off his fourth season with Minnesota United once he returns from the pair of friendlies in Europe this week.
Ibarra remains under contract with the NASL side through the 2016 season and Lagos acknowledges that having a U.S. international player on his roster is special. But if Ibarra continues to earn calls from Klinsmann, it may be difficult to keep him from an MLS debut.
“It’s an exciting time for him and for our club,” Lagos said. “The reality is, this is how a lot of players in different leagues get noticed by working really hard and doing well. Ultimately for us as a club, and along with Miguel, we’re going to be open and honest and try to navigate the growth of soccer with the umbrella of the global game in mind and hopefully whatever transpires in the future, it’s a win-win for the club and player.”