It’s hard to ignore how influential Miguel Ibarra has been for Minnesota United this year. While his basic counting stats don’t shout at you (2 goals, 3 assists in 1051 minutes), consider that he would have two additional assists on crosses had the initial shot not been parried straight to the original shooter (Ibson against Chicago, Quintero versus SKC). Moreover, consider that Ibarra leads the team handily in attempted passes in the attacking third (210, completing a tidy 78.6% of them). He’s done this while playing in all three spots along Adrian Heath’s attacking midfield. His crossing has improved immensely this year, his chemistry with Darwin Quintero and Christian Ramirez has been excellent, and the space he’s covered on the field has been ridiculous.
It’s why, coming into Monday’s friendly against Bolivia, Ibarra’s name was sneaking into national conversation for potential spots on the United States Men’s National Team. Matt Doyle, MLSSoccer.com’s Armchair Analyst, added him to the most depressing fan fiction I’ve ever seen, saying that Miguel would be a late-game “workhorse” alongside young FC Nordsjaelland winger Jonathan Amon and some equally young kid playing for some Bundesliga team. If our recent request for mailbag questions is a guide, it’s a popular thought for Loons fans as well.
On form, if the Yanks were going into World Cup preparation, Miguel Ibarra would be making as strong of a case as anyone else in the domestic MLS player pool. Of the 43 Americans listed as playing over 350 minutes as an attacker or midfielder by American Soccer Analysis, Ibarra currently sits second in raw number of pass attempts in the final third (behind Sacha Kljestan) and fourth in expected assists per 96 (plus seventh worst in assists minus expected assists, meaning his teammates have been a bit wasteful). His industry has been reasonably precise as well, with his percentage of shots on target coming in third (tops among non-strikers), final third passing percentage coming in 13th, and his overall passing percentage 18th.
All of these play into the way that the United States have played in the past. Under Bruce Arena in particular, the single-striker formations with wingers either fully pushed ahead or part of a three-man attacking midfield required a good amount of creative work from the wings. Moreover, with the amount of overload play that the fullbacks were pushed into, wingers needed to be willing to shuttle both ways, complete a lot of dribbles, and be available as an outlet for someone pushed higher. This requires tight, confident passing with an eye to opening up shooting chances.
Think back to how Ibarra fared against Chicago. Playing nominally as a #10, Ibarra ended up providing support for both Ethan Finlay and Sam Nicholson depending on which side the ball was going through.
The spread of the field to get on the ball sticks out to me here. Ibarra was diving deep into midfield to cycle play from the back, was running on both flanks, and yet was almost absent from zone 14 (the center of the attacking third outside of the 18). His best moves going forward were to work hand-in-hand with the attacker, then cross in from deep (see: that cross to Ibson).
It’s easy to imagine that work as a winger with either an overlapping fullback (think of DeAndre Yedlin) or a #10, similar to what Darwin Quintero has given him so far this year. Moreover, he had the willingness to get deep into midfield, both to intercept play and to be the first outlet for balls coming from the back line. Matt Doyle isn’t wrong in saying that he’d be a good spark off the bench if anyone’s legs are failing them, though my hunch is that his endurance is a bigger factor when he and the opposition both have 50-60 minutes on them. He’s been an efficient creator in the way that the U.S. uses wingers.
All of this info is academic, however, when you realize that the United States will not be in the World Cup this year, which might be the biggest decider of all.
When a player is peaking at the right time for a World Cup, choosing current form over potential makes a lot of sense; in Ibarra’s case, he’s seized on playing with a quality striker and a rotating cast of good to elite attacking midfielders and has shown what added skill can be found when so much effort is put into each touch of the ball. Now that the team is in full rebuild mode—as evidenced on Monday, starting four players under the age of 20 including three in the attack—a player like Ibarra’s form becomes less relevant.
Consider who’s in the player pool around him: in addition to last night’s wing starters in Rubio Rubin and Tim Weah, the team also called in Anderlecht’s Kenny Saief for the games against Ireland and France. Cupcake Campers like Paul Arriola and Brooks Lennon have also made shouts, though neither are on scintillating form. All five of them will be younger than Ibarra is now when the next World Cup comes around. Ibarra also has contemporaries like Gyasi Zardes, Darlington Nagbe, and Fafa Picault all on good form in MLS with less age.
With players like Weah, Saief, and Christian Pulisic playing for upper-echelon European teams in his same position, it’s hard to see where Ibarra fits where the USMNT is going regardless of his efforts. While he wasn’t necessarily a regular in the “lost generation” of USMNT players that Brian Sciaretta excellently laid out for American Soccer Now, Ibarra’s within that 1990-1994 birth year range where talent didn’t quite bubble through stateside. Looking ahead to 2022, it’s not totally out of the realm of possibility to use someone on the other side of 30 (Ibarra will be 32 by the time the next World Cup comes around), but if players like Tim Weah are coming through a decade younger, it’s worth the gamble on projecting someone who will have two or three World Cup cycles in his prime.
So, has Miguel Ibarra played himself into a shout for the National Team? Sure. But that shout is one for a January camp where European players aren’t available, or for a “thanks for your domestic service” inclusion in the 2019 Gold Cup. At this point, it’s hard to envisage his performance being the deciding factor in making the USMNT with the new generation of talent coming through.