Miguel Ibarra's U.S. rise has opened up questions about his future in the NASL
Miguel Ibarra can't stop his head from spinning.
Four months ago Ibarra was essentially an unknown, at least outside of those circles that follow the North American Soccer League and his club, Minnesota United FC. Now after making his first international start for the U.S. in last weekend's 2-0 win over Panama, Ibarra finds his profile increasing at light speed.
"Everything is coming out of nowhere," he told ESPN FC via telephone. "Everything is surprising to me, coming so fast. So far I think I've done great with it, just taking full advantage of it. Just making sure I'm staying fit, healthy, and if I get called into the national team, make sure I perform there."
Ibarra did just that on Sunday, putting in a solid shift with 79 minutes of game action while slotting into the left side of midfield. While the end product on some of his offensive forays could have been a bit better, he took up some good attacking positions, linked up well with his teammates, and was conscientious when it came to his defensive duties. Not bad for a player who operates as an attacking midfielder with his club.
"I think [Ibarra] has done a very, very good job and he's totally respected and a part of this group now," Klinsmann told reporters at his post-match press conference. "That's nice to see that process over half a year."
The just concluded winter training camp with the U.S. marked Ibarra's first extended period in the national team setup after twice getting called in towards the end of last year in October and November. It's a period that can be grueling at times, but the 24-year-old credited those first invitations with allowing him to make a good impression over the last month.
"This camp, it was way easier," he said. "At my first call up, I was kind of nervous, I didn't really know anybody, I was kind of the new guy.
"This time around, I wasn't as nervous, I knew the guys already. I was just way more confident, I could tell in my practices. Jurgen noticed I was way more confident, I was getting comfortable. I just made sure I performed every day at practice."
Now the question of what is next for the reigning NASL MVP is being raised. Ibarra has two years left on his current contract with Minnesota United, and the impulse is to think that he needs to head to MLS. Ibarra indicated that his conversations with MUFC have revealed that the club won't stand in his way if he decides to head elsewhere, but Minnesota isn't about to let its best player leave for nothing either.
Given its sizable investment in the player over the last three seasons, Minnesota quite rightly expects to be given some sort of transfer fee.
"Ibarra has put himself on the map at this club," said Minnesota United president Nick Rogers. "Certainly if there's a move that makes sense for him and the club, then we would absolutely want to pursue that. For the time being, I think everybody is happy with the current arrangement.
"I haven't received any offers for Miguel. I have no doubt that there are a bunch of clubs who would take this guy on a free transfer. That would be a good piece of business for somebody. That wouldn't make sense for our club and we haven't received an offer that makes sense for our club."
Granted, it's more than a tad incongruous that it is Minnesota, a second-tier club, that finds itself holding the cards in this situation. After all, the Portland Timbers had first crack at Ibarra back in 2012, only to make him be the last player cut as the club headed into its second MLS season.
The temptation then is to think that Portland blundered, but Minnesota United head coach Manny Lagos insists the calculus involved in keeping Ibarra was a bit more complicated.
"I chuckle when people look at it like Portland passed him up," he said. "That's not really the way it works in this business. They have to sign players for the future but also for their current roster, what their needs are; what the player is going to be but also what he may be at that point in his career."
It was then-Portland assistant Amos Magee, who is also a close friend of Lagos, who pointed Ibarra in the direction of Minnesota, who at the time was known as the Minnesota Stars. Lagos became a fan of Ibarra's from the moment the player arrived, and has enjoyed watching him grow and mature since then.
"Miguel has this youthful energy about him that I think is unique," said Lagos. "I think he adds a lot of quality no matter what. I think he's grown to recognize how to use that to make both the other players around him better and also to affect the game more as he's navigated the pro game."
Of course, Ibarra's options extend well beyond that of just MLS. While he was born in New York City, he holds Mexico citizenship through his parents. His technical style of play and 5-foot-7 frame would seem to make him tailor-made for Liga MX as opposed to the more physical nature of MLS.
"If the opportunity comes and they come to terms with Minnesota, I would love to go to Mexico," said Ibarra.
An opportunity to represent Mexico internationally also remains in play as well since Ibarra hasn't appeared for the U.S. in an official competition. But given all that has transpired over the last four months, he didn't sound like someone who is inclined to turn away from the U.S. program.
"Jurgen actually took the time to give me the opportunity, he's had people go out and watch me play," said Ibarra.
"So I'm just really grateful and focused on playing on the national team of the U.S. If the opportunity was to come with Mexico -- and I haven't heard anything -- I'd have to discuss it with Jurgen and get his thoughts on it. As of right now, I'm just focused on the U.S."
Ibarra added that his club focus remains with Minnesota and the impending NASL season. He is set to rejoin his club teammates in Arizona for preseason training, even as speculation of a move elsewhere increases.
"I'm just listening to everything everyone has to tell me," he said. "And I'm just always grateful for everything that's happening to me, and just making sure I'm always working hard and not to settle."
Ibarra's head may be spinning, but his feet are planted firmly on the ground.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.