Stejskal: After three years adrift, Miguel Ibarra finally back in rhythm

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A couple of weeks ago, almost four years after he became the first lower-division player in nearly a decade to receive a US men’s national team call-up, Minnesota United winger Miguel Ibarra got a text from Jurgen Klinsmann.

The message wasn’t anything grand – the ex-USMNT manager was just sending some words of encouragement to one of his former players for his recent play. While it wasn’t over the top, the text was a nice moment in a solid couple of months for Ibarra, who finally feels that he’s getting back into the form that had Klinsmann and so many others excited about his potential way back in 2014.

“Getting a text message from Jurgen Klinsmann that said he’s happy to see how I’m playing, getting a lot of text messages and words from coaches, from our coaches and other coaches, it’s a really big confidence booster,” Ibarra told MLSsoccer.com on Tuesday.

“I definitely think I’m really back to it.”

Returning to top form has been a long, occasionally frustrating road for the 28-year-old winger, who first burst into American soccer’s collective consciousness in October 2014. It was then, toward the end of his 2014 NASL Golden Ball-winning campaign with Minnesota, when Klinsmann first called Ibarra to the national team.

The call-up and subsequent caps with the USMNT created a substantial amount of hype, with Ibarra parlaying his international exposure and excellent 2013 and 2014 seasons in NASL into a big-money move to Liga MX side Club Leon in June 2015.

He hoped to take his career to the next level in Mexico, but a series of hamstring injuries and coaching changes – he played for three different managers in 18 months in Leon – prevented him from making much of an impact.

So, after just eight Liga MX appearances, Ibarra left Leon and returned to Minnesota last January ahead of their inaugural MLS campaign. The season didn’t go according to plan – not for Ibarra, and certainly not for Minnesota. Ibarra struggled with consistency, recording three goals and four assists as a spot starter as Minnesota faltered mightily out of the gate and missed the playoffs by a wide margin.

This year, things are starting to look up for the winger. With Ethan Finlay and Kevin Molino out for the year due to injuries and Sam Nicholson recently traded to Colorado, he looks entrenched in the starting XI. He’s performing, too, recording one goal and three assists in nine games.

Ibarra playing with USMNT in 2015 | USA Today Sports Images

He’s gotten on the stat sheet in back-to-back matches heading into Wednesday’s contest at LAFC (10 pm ET | Full TV & streaming info), assisting on Ibson’s winner in a 2-1 victory against Houston on April 28 before scoring the lone goal in Minnesota’s 1-0 win against Vancouver last Saturday.

After spending so much time riding the bench in Leon and never quite clicking with the Loons last season, the extended run of solid play has Ibarra feeling better than he has in nearly three years.

“I’m just enjoying playing again,” he said. “I’m happy.”

Ibarra credits a bulked-up offseason regimen as a big reason for his improved form. His time in Leon and the 2017 season left him with a bad taste in his mouth, so he decided to get back to work earlier than he had in prior years this winter. Instead of taking a long vacation after Minnesota’s season ended, Ibarra only gave himself a week off before resuming training. His focus shifted, too. He paid more attention to strengthening the hamstrings that had given him trouble in Mexico, worked to re-claim some speed and, with the help of fellow longtime Loon Christian Ramirez, changed his diet to better prep for 2018.

“This year’s probably the most I’ve done,” he said. “I usually take a big time off right after the season, but I knew this season, with me not playing in Leon and me not being healthy and me having not a really consistent season last year, I knew I had to have a big offseason for me to come back and get back in form.”

So far, he’s done that, re-capturing some of the magic that made him such a fan favorite during his first stint in Minnesota. All four of the goals he’s been involved in have been game-winners, and he’s become an increasingly important part of an improved Minnesota team. If he can continue his top form, he might just help Minnesota compete for a playoff spot in the wide open Western Conference.

“I wasn’t starting at the beginning of the year, but I knew I could come off the bench and give the team a spark if they needed it, which I think I was doing,” he said. “Then we started to get some injuries, I started getting an opportunity to start, and now I think my confidence is at high as it can be. I think I’m just going to get better.”

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