EAST HARTFORD, Conn. – Miguel Ibarra is the most unlikely player with the U.S. national team as it prepares for Landon Donovan's international finale.
The 24-year-old midfielder isn't with a European club, isn't even in Major League Soccer. The Californian is in his third season with Minnesota United of the second division North American Soccer League, where he was selected September's player of the month.
Last weekend, he played at home before a crowd of 5,744 at National Sports Center in Blaine, a suburb of Minneapolis and St. Paul. On Friday he could make his international debut against Ecuador before 35,000-plus at Rentschler Field, many coming to see the 157th national team appearance of Donovan, the U.S. record-holder for goals and assists.
"Just being here for his final game is going to be an honor," Ibarra said Thursday.
Ibarra has eight goals and five assists this year for Minnesota, which finished first in the spring season and tops the fall standings of the NASL, which uses split seasons. He played for Taft College and UC Irvine, was selected by Portland in MLS's 2012 supplemental draft but signed with Minnesota instead.
His coach there is Manny Lagos, an MLS veteran who made three appearances with the U.S. national team from 2001-03 and is friends with Tab Ramos, head coach of the American under-20 team and a national team assistant. Minnesota says Ibarra is the first player from a second-tier American league asked to a national team camp since 2005, when Bruce Arena called in midfielder Clyde Simms of Richmond in the A-League.
"Our job is to identify the talent, figure out how good he really is," U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said.
For last month's exhibition at the Czech Republic, the start of the four-year cycle leading to the 2018 World Cup in Russia, Klinsmann took along Jordan Morris, a sophomore forward at Stanford. Morris didn't get into the game — the U.S. Soccer Federation believes no college player has appeared for the national team since Ante Razov in 1995 — but Klinsmann made an impression.
What was he up to?
"Sending out that signal to all the other players out there, saying, you know what? We understand there are so many different directions, because the U.S. soccer landscape is what it is," Klinsmann said. "It's so different to the rest of the world."
Ibarra, 5-foot-7 and fast, learned of his selection when Klinsmann called him.
"It says that Jurgen is going to look everywhere, wherever he can, for talent," he said.
When he reported to the training camp, which began with sessions at Harvard, Ibarra said the speed and intensity was noticeably higher than he was used to, and it took him time to adjust.
Klinsmann says that injecting Ibarra into training sessions with the national team player pool makes for an easier evaluation than watching video or digesting USSF staff scouting reports.
"'We can talk to him and tell him, 'Listen, this is what you need now. This is where you've got to step it up. This is what you understand from a tempo, pace point of view,'" he said.
Training with World Cup veterans Jozy Altidore and Brad Guzan, Ibarra remembers the advice given to him by Lagos.
"He's always pushed me," Ibarra said, "and he just tells me to always enjoy the game and just play like if I was a little kid."
NOTES: Because of the elimination by FIFA of international dates each February and August, CONCACAF's semifinal round of World Cup qualifying may start in late 2015 and the final round may run from late 2016 to September 2017, leaving October 2017 for intercontinental playoffs. ... Klinsmann said Brad Guzan will play in goal on Friday and Nick Rimando on Tuesday against Honduras in Boca Raton, Florida. Chicago's Sean Johnson will join the team for the Honduras match.