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The Ibson experience: How to bring out his best, with an eye toward improving Loons’ defense

BY: JON MARTHALER

Soccer is famous for its one-named players. Only one has cracked the regular Minnesota United starting lineup, where he’s been a fixture since the club’s NASL days, and in the process he’s become perhaps the most polarizing player in the Loons squad. So let’s talk about Ibson, the United midfield stalwart, whose particular skills may not match what Minnesota needs right now.

At 34, in a sport where 30 is geriatric and 35 is ancient, Ibson long ago reached “crafty old guy” stage. He is the “55-year-old in a pickup basketball game” of the team, all feints and dips of the shoulder and – yes – overdramatized fouls. He does not wear a sweatband and Rec Specs onto the field. It seems like a missed opportunity.

Three moments from the Loons’ 2-1 win against Houston last Saturday:

  1. Miguel Ibarra, in a small amount of space on the right wing, whips in a low cross. Ibson, making a run to the near post, nimbly deflects the ball with the inside of his right heel. The ball rolls past a deceived goalkeeper and a too-late defender, and into the corner of the net – the game-winner.
  2. Ibson receives the ball in midfield and darts past Houston’s Darwin Cerén. Ever so briefly, Cerén tugs Ibson’s jersey. Ibson throws his hands up in the air, flying from the ground in the manner of a community-theater actor attempting to make it look as if he’s been shot in the back. Referee Ted Unkel awards Cerén a yellow card for the shirt pull, but smiles as Cerén throws his hands up at Ibson’s embellishment.
  3. Houston left winger Romell Quioto hares down the left side of the Minnesota defense. Ibson, roused from his midfield position, flies at him as if he’s attempting to football-tackle him into the sideline. Ibson flies past Quioto at fifty miles an hour, without delaying him for a second. With the resulting space, Quioto has plenty of time to whip in a dangerous cross – which is put into the stands by some typically awful Houston finishing. Few notice Ibson’s strange attempt at defense.

Good Ibson, Bad Ibson, Ugly Ibson. It’s all just part of the Ibson experience.

It’s been some ride for the Brazilian, who grew up at Flamengo in Brazil, then moved to Portuguese giants Porto. Jose Mourinho had just decamped from Porto for Chelsea, after winning Porto an impossible Champions League trophy, and Ibson was part of two league titles and a Portuguese Cup triumph on the heels of Mourinho’s departure. It was the beginning of Ibson’s world travels. Since his time at Porto, he’s:

  1. returned to Brazil
  2. played parts of three seasons in Moscow
  3. gone back to Brazil
  4. made a short stop in Italy
  5. landed in Minnesota.

His arrival came in 2015, back when United was treading the turf in Blaine. He essentially hasn’t left the Loons’ starting eleven since. Three Minnesota United head coaches have made him a fixture in the lineup. MLSsoccer.com’s Andrew Wiebe picked him as part of the league’s all-underrated all-stars. But the question remains: can United afford to keep him in the starting squad?

Minnesota’s defense has been, again in 2018, utterly porous. The Loons have run through a series of fullbacks, surrounding the wobbly central-defensive pairing of Michael Boxall and Francisco Calvo, and the four-man unit has been getting regularly roasted. The early-season-2017 version of the Loons was widely noted for having the worst defense in MLS history, but in 2018 Minnesota’s goals-per-game numbers are actually worse than 2017 as a whole. Every game seemingly begins with United giving up two ugly first-half goals.

This leaves the midfield and the forwards with the task of helping out, and every Loons starter approaches his defensive duties somewhat differently. Schüller hustles around the center of the field, looking as menacing as his Finnish beanpole frame will allow. Miguel Ibarra is a Yorkshire terrier, snapping at the heels of anyone who holds the ball too long on his side of the field. Christian Ramirez runs tirelessly, trying to create pressure on opposition center backs and goalkeepers.

Ibson’s approach is somewhat different. When confronted with an opposing dribbler, instead of pressuring the ball, he’ll often stop, ten yards away, as if he’s defending the hoop against a basketball player who is no threat to shoot a three-pointer. Opposing players can’t dribble around him because, well, he’s too far away. If pressed, he’ll attempt one of his kamikaze runs directly at the attacker, or he’ll go for a cheap, attack-killing foul. It’s not defense, exactly. It’s more just a consistent attempt to be annoying.

He is, in short, not in the game for defense. He’s there to link the United defense with the offense. Minnesota is not really a patient, build-from-the-back type of team. So often, its offense depends on Ibson picking up the ball with not much space, holding it for just a moment, then launching a cross-field pass to try to pick out one of the attackers who has some room to operate. If nothing else, he’ll earn Minnesota a free kick; he’s fifth in MLS (and was sixth last season) in terms of drawing fouls, some of which are even legitimate.

Left to that role, Ibson excels. But given United’s struggles at the back, as well as with defending in front of that back line, it feels like the Loons need a pure defensive midfielder as well as one who’s more of a box-to-box-type player. Ibson, really, is neither.

Near as I can tell, there are three options. First, United can simply replace Ibson with a defense-first midfielder, whose role would be entirely focused on shielding the center backs. Second, United can change its formation, adding a defense-first midfielder and subtracting a playmaking forward,  leaving Ibson room to create – but with one fewer player in front of him. Or, United can keep things more or less the same, and figure out some combination of defenders – perhaps with Brent Kallman at center back, and Francisco Calvo pushed to left back – that will result in a better defensive performance.

The Loons themselves might have tipped their hand this week, when they traded winger Sam Nicholson for Colorado fullback (and Woodbury native) Eric Miller. It’s a definite move towards shoring up the defense, or towards the possibility of replacing a winger with a defensive midfielder. Either way, it opens the door towards keeping Ibson in his usual place in the starting eleven. As long as his role doesn’t involve regular defensive duties, that could be the best possibility for United: keep Good Ibson, but lessen the impact of Bad Ibson.





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