Franco Ibarra is a mystery of a player. Still just setting sail on his professional career with 2600 minutes played over four seasons, Ibarra is extremely green — something we must keep in mind when projecting his future long term. But unfortunately for him, he came to Atlanta United on one of the league’s newly-implemented U-22 designations, which perhaps placed outsize importance on his current ability and what he could offer the team on the field immediately.
To be honest, the initial impressions hit the mark. He was (and perhaps still is) a combative midfielder that had him among the tops in the league in many defensive categories on a per-game basis after his first year in MLS in 2021. That set the stage for a player like him to — going into his second year in MLS — settle into the team and the country, improve on his weaknesses and make a leap to become an important first team player.
That... didn’t quite happen. Let’s discuss.
Minutes: 979 (11 starts)
What Went Right?
It seemed as though Ibarra was going to Fulfill The Prophecy and become the perfect central midfielder to fill the void of Ozzie Alonso’s absence after the veteran suffered his season-ending ACL tear. Ibarra came into the lineup and looked good, especially with the ball at his feet — a clear area of needed improvement after his first year at the club. In his second start of the season against the Chicago Fire in May, he showed a glimpse of the way he could distribute vertically bypassing the opponents to put the team in positive attacking positions.
What To Improve On?
It was pretty much downhill from there. Ibarra only went on to start 11 matches during a season in which Ozzie Alonso missed almost all of it and Santiago Sosa missed about half the season, among other midfielder who missed time. There was an opportunity for Ibarra to cement himself in the side, and it didn’t happen.
One fundamental area that can improve that can help all the facets of Ibarra’s game is his general fitness. He seems to carry a higher body fat percentage than any other player on the team, and it clearly hinders his mobility. It leaves him late to challenges, or worse, unable to commit to reaching balls that he otherwise might be able to fight for. When you look at the positive defensive statistics from his FBref profile above, note that all of them are way down from where he was a year ago (where he was 95%+ in just about every defensive category). We’ve seen a player in Ezequiel Barco really drill down on his fitness that has improved his game immensely, and that can be the case with Ibarra as well.
Lastly, he needs to be tidy enough on the ball that he isn’t a risk in losing it in critical situations. This was such a big fear for Gonzalo Pineda down the stretch of last season that we hardly saw Ibarra play at all. At worst, Ibarra should be a player that the manager can put in for the final 10-15 minutes to help see a game out, but the manager isn’t going to do that if he’s error prone.
What Role Will He Play In 2023?
Ibarra’s performances will dictate his role in 2023. He has every opportunity to play himself into a big role — a player who sees at least some minutes in every game and shares starts with Santiago Sosa. However, Ozzie Alonso could end up being the player who is the late sub to see out games as we all know he already has the trust of Pineda. The ball is firmly in Franco Ibarra’s court.
Overall Player Grade: D
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