Moves, contract render Barnetta’s status uncertain
Tranquillo Barnetta isn’t the first member of the Philadelphia Union that manager Jim Curtin has vociferously called underrated.
But when the manager lodged that objection at a press conference two weeks ago, he did so with a little panache.
“I saw an article written about the top No. 10s in the league,” Curtin said then, “and Tranquillo wasn’t even on the list, which was the funniest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Barnetta’s performance in last Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Montreal, in which he scored a brilliant goal that reflects an incisive edge few players in MLS possess, further builds Curtin’s case for the Swiss midfielder, and adds pressure to the decisions looming for his future. So might a roster move the Union made Thursday, signing German midfielder Kevin Kratz, who roughly plays a similar position as Barnetta.
The central thrust of Curtin’s lofty praise is sometimes lost in Barnetta’s accomplishments. Yes, the 31-year-old arrived in Philadelphia last August as one of the most decorated and well-known players the club has ever had, a veteran of over 300 games in the German Bundesliga, 20-some in European competition and three World Cups.
But in 13 months with the Union, he’s been asked to switch positions from the winger role at which he made his name to the No. 10 central position and has deputized in a deeper-lying No. 8 midfield position that he’s rarely played as a pro. All that while running the gambit of transitioning from European preseason to the heat of the MLS season last summer and adapting to the usual rigors of American physicality, climate, travel, etc.
With that level of upheaval, the fact that Barnetta has scored five goals and four assists this season while shouldering the burden of the captaincy for large stretches in the absence of Maurice Edu makes Curtin’s case convincing.
Barnetta credits Curtin’s faith in helping manage the changes, last year and this.
“That’s one big thing that when I decided to come here that I felt already, this confidence in the beginning,” Barnetta said Wednesday. “Even I knew when I was not on my best in the beginning, he always backed me up and said I’m sure you will get back to your form when you are physically on your level. I’m happy that I can pay back that confidence.”
Barnetta’s dependability is even more remarkable given the positional curveballs thrown his way. His last sustained spell as a No. 10 was in his youth; much of his time in the Bundesliga and with Switzerland was spent on the wing, though age and chronic knee issues favored the less running-intensive switch in MLS. Dropping back to the No. 8 was another dimension altogether, but he took that change in stride.
“When I started to play professionally, it was all kinds of positions,” Barnetta said. “I think that was one good thing about playing in (Bayer) Leverkusen on different spots, it helps you a lot to grow up on the field. It doesn’t matter where you play. You try to understand your role, and that’s what I did here.”
Barnetta’s indispensability for the Union contradicts his contract situation. Barnetta signed on an 18-month deal that expires at season’s end, a pact which allowed both player and club the flexibility it desired at the time. With the acquisition of Alejandro Bedoya this summer, the long-term vision of the Union could position Bedoya as a No. 10, while Roland Alberg, warts and all, scores more prolifically, makes less money and is younger at 26.
Reports out of Switzerland Thursday (obtained and translated by Philly Soccer Page) indicate that Barnetta is weighing options to return home and finish his career. He cut his teeth at St. Gallen before making the jump to Leverkusen, and he’s not yet in the twilight of a career that started with St. Gallen months after his 17th birthday.
Here’s where Kratz may come in, acquired first as late-season depth. The 29-year-old free agent was signed ahead of MLS’s roster freeze. He last played for SV Sandhausen in the 2.Bundesliga and logged 14 Bundesliga games with Eintracht Braunschweig in its only top-flight season of 201314, scoring one goal.
Kratz has played over 200 games in Germany, 108 in the second division. The Bayer Leverkusen youth product, who is represented by the same management company as Alberg, has previously been on trial with NASL/soon-to-be MLS expansion side Minnesota United. In short, he doesn’t bring the pedigree to replace Barnetta.