It's just like old times in Minnesota.
Miguel Ibarra and Christian Ramirez are back for Minnesota United. Ibarra spent just more than three years in the Loons' midfield from April 2012 through June 2015 before being sold to Liga MX side Club Leon, while Ramirez was a regular fixture at striker during the club's last three seasons in the North American Soccer League from 2014 to 2016, scoring 51 goals.
In their lone full season together in 2014, the two sparkled. Ramirez tallied 20 goals while Ibarra was named the league's MVP and earned a surprising United States national team call-up from then-coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
Now in Minnesota with the club embarking on its maiden MLS voyage, supporters could not be happier to have Batman and Superman back in the fold. While the adoration is likely to stay intact for a while and jerseys will be sold, there is the question of how successful a transition Ibarra and Ramirez will have to MLS.
Of the two, Ibarra has more of the tools required to excel in the league. Technically, he's very strong, and that's an asset whether you are in the NASL, MLS or Liga MX. He can score from outside the box as well, as he demonstrated in his lone Liga MX goal for Leon. In a league in which there are pacey players aplenty, Ibarra should fit right in with his speed. His is a motor that can last all 90 minutes as well, which is a nod to his fitness level.
There is also a creative gene that will be imperative for a Minnesota team that will likely encounter ruts in attack in their first season. Case in point is this goal that Ibarra set up in a Copa MX match against Zacatecas in February 2016. Ibarra blazes past a defender before lofting a chip across the area that meets an unmarked teammate at the far post. Golazo.
If capable of such play, skeptics will ask why Ibarra did not play more in his 18 months at Leon; he made just eight league appearances and played in only 11 Copa MX matches. It's a fair question, but from the outside one cannot help but think that the coaching turnover during his time there -- three managers took charge in that span: Juan Antonio Pizzi, Luis Fernando Tena and Javier Torrente -- likely complicated Ibarra's chances at continuity. To boot, he scored in his only league start and in 10 cup starts he tallied three goals. Those are efficient returns. If Ibarra showed well in his scant opportunities against Mexican competition, there's no reason why he can't have similar success in MLS.
The big question, however, is whether Ibarra can withstand the physicality of MLS. Unlike his first spell with Minnesota when he played more centrally, Ibarra will likely be deployed on the wings, a position he knows from his time with the national team and at Leon. There will not be a shortage of hard-nosed MLS midfielders like the LA Galaxy's Jermaine Jones or crafty full-backs such as Seattle's Brad Evans that will pull out all the stops to slow down the fleet-footed 26-year-old. Assuming he can stay healthy and is a regular member of head coach Adrian Heath's starting XI, Ibarra will do well in MLS and give Minnesota the creative spark they will require.
For Ramirez, things are more complicated. First off, there is the question of which formation Heath will use. While the Englishman did tinker with a 4-4-2 in preseason including last week's friendly versus Real Salt Lake, which Ramirez started and had an assist, all signs point to Minnesota utilizing a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3. If that is the case, Ramirez may well have to share the spotlight up front as Johan Venegas has shone thus far as a No. 9. If the Costa Rican continues to dazzle in that role, he could be the biggest hurdle facing the 25-year-old Californian.
On the field, it will be interesting to see how Ramirez fares against MLS center-backs. To expect the same goal-scoring average that he had in the NASL is way too unrealistic. At 6-foot-2, Ramirez is a big body in the box, but this season will be the first time he has ever had to go up against quality center-backs like the Galaxy's Jelle Van Damme, FC Dallas' Matt Hedges or the Seattle duo of Roman Torres and Chad Marshall.
To his credit though, Ramirez is a smart, savvy player with a nose for the goal. A player does not score 51 goals in three seasons by accident. There's also a good first touch that makes up for a lack of pace. Essentially, he has a knack for being at the right place at the right time to find the back of the net and is occasionally capable of the spectacular.
Ramirez also boasts a strong work rate that will serve him well as he adjusts to the pressures and speed of MLS. Seeing Ramirez in a regular starting role is not necessarily a certainty given Venegas' pedigree and preseason form up top, but he should be able to contribute within a host of attacking talents that have the potential to be dangerous.
Between the two, Ibarra stands to have the smoother transition to MLS, but it would be wise to not discount the impact Ramirez's potential impact.