Miguel Ibarra, Christian Ramirez motivated by fresh challenge of MLS

GOLDEN VALLEY, Minn. -- It wasn't easy, but Minnesota United will begin their first MLS season with two of their key contributors from recent years.

On Thursday, Minnesota United announced the signings of forward Christian Ramirez and midfielder Miguel Ibarra, two players who featured prominently for the club during its time in the NASL. It turned out to be something of a coup for the expansion side, as both players had major interest from Liga MX sides.

“These guys had other options – there are a lot of other places they could go play," Lagos said. "Every signing is going to be unique and have challenges. Frankly, there are some that we just haven’t been able to do. These have been situations that, when you have the short timeframe, you have to make sure you take your time and do it right.”

Ibarra was sold to Liga MX outfit Club Leon in July 2015 by Minnesota United for around  $1 million. Before his sale, he was a major figure for Minnesota, winning the NASL's Golden Ball as the league's best player and earning US national team call-ups. However, several coaching changes for Leon hurt his ability to really break through in Mexico.

Despite that, he would make the move again if he had the choice.

“It was when I was playing my best soccer yet, so going out there at that time was the right move,” Ibarra admitted to MLSsoccer.com. “Manny and I talked right before that, and he thought it was the right decision to make as well. I would’ve done it again.”

Ibarra, however, also conceded that the competitive level between MLS and Liga MX is growing more similar every year.

"For me, it’s a different style of play. In Liga MX, it’s more of a touching kind of league. They’re more about touches on the ball. In MLS, it’s still growing. It’s a great league.”

Minnesota acquired Ibarra for an undisclosed transfer fee. While Lagos wouldn’t confirm the exact amount, he said that the club “felt really good” about the deal it made. Ibarra recognized that he’s grown as a player from his time in Mexico, even if he didn’t play regularly.

“I learned a lot,” Ibarra said. “It’s different with a lot of players. You have World Cup veterans giving advice to always work hard. I had other players that would tell me I needed to play looser because I wasn’t playing how I did in Minnesota. They helped me out a lot with that. It’s the same thing in the national team: everyone told me to play like I did in Minnesota.”

As for Ramirez, most of his suitors this offseason were in Mexico. Ramirez, who is of Colombian heritage, said there was an appeal to play in a Latin American league and confessed that he was very close to signing for a club in Liga MX, though he wouldn’t name the side.

“I was 12 hours away from signing with MX, if I’m being honest,” he told MLSsoccer.com. “I gave an extra day to Minnesota. There were a couple offers and it was about figuring out location. Manny told my agent to give him some time. I couldn’t complain – I was in Cabo on my honeymoon. I had nothing but time. ... Ultimately, they came through.”

Both players admitted that the club’s move to MLS was a major factor in their returns to Minnesota. For Ramirez, in particular, being on one of the newest clubs in the league brings its own set of intriguing challenges.

“If I was going into MLS, it was going to be with Minnesota. It wouldn’t have felt right if I went in with another club," said Ramirez. "You hear the challenge from other people saying we’ll be the worst team ever; those things motivate you. Adrian [Heath, Minnesota's head coach], Manny, and Dr. Bill [McGuire, the club owner] have a plan. We’re two pieces in their plan. Hopefully, we can be impactful.”

A Southern California kid at heart, Ramirez trains with many MLS players in the offseason, including Sporting KC’s Benny Feilhaber.

“This is the top league in the States. It’s what you dream about as a player. I’ve already talked to Feilhaber and he knows that [Minnesota United] have a little rivalry with Sporting KC after the last couple US Open Cup matches. I’m excited to get going.”