UCI's Ibarra has skill, not size

UC Irvine All-American Miguel Ibarra is participating at the MLS pre-draft Player Combine in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. UC Irvine Sports Information

George Kuntz has seen some amazing things in nearly four decades as an accomplished player and coach, but when he tries to describe what's special about Miguel Ibarra -- what qualities he might bring to a Major League Soccer club -- he's at a loss for words.

“I wish I could give you some footage, some highlights [on video],” said Kuntz, who has coached Ibarra the past two seasons at Big West Conference powerhouse UC Irvine. “It's hard to explain how he punctuates dramatic moments in games.”

Like in September, when Ibarra, a diminutive midfielder from Lancaster, careened through Wisconsin's “redwoods” to set up an overtime winner for the Anteaters. Or in November, when he took on Cal Poly's defense, weaving past and walking the ball into the net to provide another win.

Kuntz can nearly wax poetic on Ibarra's performances against UC Santa Barbara, which UCI twice beat last fall to win the Big West regular-season and tournament titles, or how he came back from a blow that had knocked him out of the NCAA tournament opener against St. Mary's to create the goal that forced overtime. Or countless occasions on the training field.

“All these punctuation goals,” Kuntz said. “The guy creates and scores goals. What I like about his play is how [Barcelona's Lionel] Messi dribbles inside and slips the forward in -- Miguel does that both from the right and the left side, or he can take guys down the line.

“He's got extraordinary speed. His cardio ... there are very few guys who can run at the level of speed with and without the ball that he has over a long period of time.”

Those skills and the work honing them have led accolades and opportunity. His mesmerizing trickery won him first-team NSCAA Division I All-America plaudits last month and an invitation to the MLS's pre-draft Player Combine, which wraps up Tuesday in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Ibarra (Lancaster HS), 21, He says he “definitely was not expecting” either honor, but the first was a sign that “all the hard work paid off, just an amazing feeling” and the second “an opportunity, and I have to work hard for it and give it all I have.”

Ibarra, 5-foot-7 and just 135 pounds, offers something very rare for the club that selects him in Thursday's MLS SuperDraft, Kuntz says, so long as they understand what it is he does. He's drawn comparison to 2010 MLS Rookie of the Year Andy Najar, D.C. United's teen sensation, and Kuntz sees in him a little Irving Garcia, the UCI product who withered in the wrong system after he was drafted by the New York Red Bulls two years ago.

“Whoever gets him, if they're going to use him like [New York utilized] Garcia, they probably don't want to pick him up,” Kuntz said. “If you don't give a player like this freedom, you're going to limit your own goalscoring opportunities. Used the right way -- as a wide player or a playmaker, an attacking player who has defensive responsibilities but also players around him [to pick up the defensive slack], he can wreak havoc.”

Says Ibarra: “I bring a good attacking mindset to any team. I think I can create a lot of attacking threats also.”

Ibarra grew up playing for Antelope Valley clubs -- the Sharks and the Ambush, with which he played gold level -- without any attention from the Olympic Development Program nor the U.S. national teams programs. He starred at Lancaster High School, made an impression on Kuntz while playing for the Lancaster Rattlers in the USL Premier Development League the summer after high school, then was a junior college All-American after leading Taft College, from the Central Valley, to the state title game in 2009.

“Taft was just the beginning,” said Ibarra, who hopes to follow in the footsteps of fellow Antelope Valley pros Sean Franklin (Palmdale/Highland HS and Cal State Northridge), the Galaxy's right back, and the Griffin brothers (Palmdale/Littlerock HS and UCLA), San Jose Earthquakes forward Maxwell and former MLS defender Leonard. “It helped me mature a lot, right before I got into UC Irvine. It basically got me ready to play Division I.”

He totaled 24 goals and 22 assists in two seasons at Taft, then headed to Orange County with teammate Christian Hernandez (Palmdale/Palmdale HS), a senior who also hopes to play professionally but is not expected to be taken in the MLS draft.

“He matured at Taft,” Kuntz said. “He was much more disciplined. drove up to watch one game, and there was one situation where he received the ball at the corner of his own 6 [just wide of Taft's goal], and he dribbled 80 yards and caromed a ball off the cross bar, and then got back to defend in midfield. That sold it for me. I wanted to make sure that night he was committed. He's a two-way player, just works his rear off.”

He had 10 assists as a junior for Irvine, which shifted to a more possession-oriented attack last fall to better utilize Ibarra's skills. He scored nine goals with eight assists and boosted Hernandez's numbers to seven and 10 as the Anteaters spent a good deal of the campaign in the top 10.

The question now: Will somebody give him a chance to do what he does best? The mock drafts coming from observers in Florida are all over the place, with Ibarra a late first-round pick in one, a late second-round selection in another and nowhere in the first two rounds in several others.

MLS is a physical, athletic league, but he believes there's room for smaller players with skill.

“I think I'll be able to adapt, and I think I'll be able to do well,” Ibarra said. “I don't think size matters. It's how you play. I know I might be small, but I know what I can bring to the field and bring to a team to help with everything I have.”

Kuntz agrees.

“I hope they look past just the size,” he said, “because we're a team that has scored a lot of goals [45 in a 16-6-1 campaign last fall, 46 in a 14-3-3 season in 2010], and we haven't done it with big players. We've done it with guys who are quick, skillful and can combine.”