MINNEAPOLIS – Minnesota United lost their creative sparkplug when Kevin Molino suffered a torn ACL against Orlando City on March 10. With no obvious replacement on the roster for the Trindadian playmaker, the Loons’ positive start to the season appeared to be in danger.
Coach Adrian Heath ultimately chose Miguel Ibarra for the role as the Chicago Fire hit town. The erstwhile winger brought a very different skill set to the position, and for Heath, there was another concern: Would a player who’d only logged 38 minutes in the first two games of the year be match-fit?
“The biggest problem for people who have to wait and wait is they don't feel match sharp,” said Heath, “and only games give you that.”
Ibarra had, up to now, played the impact substitute role for the Loons, sparking the comeback that fell short against San Jose and the win the following week at Orlando. The Californian knows his energy is one of his prime attributes and that he had to play the same way for 90 minutes against Chicago on Saturday.
“I'm always going to bring energy,” he explained. “I'm going to bring a lot of pressure.”
That was apparent against the Fire – both in the defensive third, where he harried opposing midfielders, as well as in the attack. Ibarra hustled down a loose ball in the corner to set up Minnesota’s first goal after an Ethan Finlay cross was blocked, and later fed Finlay for the cross capped by Sam Nicholson’s game-winner in a 2-1 Loons victory.
Asked postgame if Ibarra had done enough to warrant another shot at attacking midfielder, Heath responded with a resounding “yes.”
“I thought his effort was incredible today,” the coach said of Ibarra. “If it would have been a grass pitch he would have covered every blade of it.”
It wasn’t just his hustle that coaches and teammates appreciated. After the match, Finlay spoke highly of his teammate.
“I think Miguel does a really good job positionally, which I think helped us out tonight,” said Finlay. “We were really balanced and then we were great on the counterattack for most of the evening.”
Ibarra was not asked to be the creative playmaker for Minnesota in the same way as Molino, as the team instead changed some of the front four’s attacking responsibilities.
Moving forward, both Finlay and Nicholson will be asked to cut inside from the wings more, while Ibson and other midfielders will look for more chances to advance into the opposing penalty box and create scoring opportunities for the Loons.
Despite all that, Heath did temper his enthusiasm somewhat, suggesting that the team still needed to bring in more players to be competitive. The team has been linked with Colombian forward Darwin Quintero, who is seen by some as a more permanent replacement for Molino than Ibarra.
“We’re hoping to add to this group,” said Heath, “and if we do, this team is capable of competing with most of the teams in this league.”