New im­port show­ing ver­sa­til­ity

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - SPORTS - By Matthew DeGe­orge mde­ge­orge @21st-cen­tu­ry­ @sports­doc­tormd on Twit­ter

CH­ESTER >> Four­teen months ago, Tran­quillo Bar­netta in­tro­duced him­self to the Philadel­phia Union com­mu­nity by ref­er­enc­ing a con­nec­tion to a Union player of the past.

This fall, as Bar­netta pre­pares to en­ter into that pop­u­la­tion as he ex­its the Union for a re­turn to his home­town, the Swiss mid­fielder is be­queath­ing an­other link that could aid the Union for the fu­ture.

That pull is to mid­fielder Kevin Kratz, signed two weeks ago, who trained Wed­nes­day af­ter fi­nal­iz­ing his visa. Kratz said he leaned on his rap­port with Bar­netta, dat­ing from their days with Bayer Lev­erkusen, to help make the de­ci­sion to come to the U.S.

“I talked to ’Quillo when I came here, be­cause I knew him from Lev­erkusen, and he told me, ‘Kevin, train­ing is good qual­ity, the fa­cil­i­ties are good and the new build­ing with the locker room and all that. The sta­dium is nice,’” Kratz said. “He men­tioned a few things, and now that I’m here, I can make my own im­pres­sions.”

The chain link­ing play­ers is im­pres­sively thin and in­dica­tive of the value of con­nec­tions in the world of soc­cer. Bar­netta and Kratz were never ac­tu­ally team­mates: Bar­netta was at Lev­erkusen from 200412, mi­nus a sea­son on loan. Kratz spent 12 years at Lev­erkusen from 19972009, but the high­est he as­cended through the youth ranks was to the re­serve team, Lev­erkusen II.

But the two forged a bond on the prac­tice field, Kratz reg­u­larly pro­moted to train with the first team, and when Kratz had the op­por­tu­nity to play abroad, he looked up Bar­netta for de­tails.

“He was al­ways the guy who took care of the younger play­ers,” Kratz said. “There were some of the older play­ers at Lev­erkusen who were a lit­tle bit sep­a­rate. I came up from the sec­ond team out of the youth (academy) and was in train­ing camp with the first team, and he was al­ways like, ‘Kevin, if you need any­thing, just let me know, I’ll take care of it.’ It’s the same as he did here.”

Bar­netta’s hook to the Union was Oka Nikolov, the backup goalie who never played for the club in 2013 and is now the goal­keep­ing coach. Nikolov and an on­loan Bar­netta were team­mates for in 2013-14 at Ein­tra­cht Frank­furt, and Nikolov vouched for the Union as a po­ten­tial des­ti­na­tion for the ad­ven­ture-seek­ing Bar­netta.

There are other at­tach­ments for Kratz. His agent, Stone Sports Man­age­ment, rep­re­sents a num­ber of Euro­peans play­ing in MLS, in­clud­ing Union team­mate Roland Al­berg and for­mer Beth­le­hem Steel goalie Samir Badr. Kratz had been on trial with NASL/fu­ture MLS club Min­nesota United, along­side for­mer Ale­man­nia Aachen team­mate/ Stone client Kris­tian Nicht.

Kratz has long pre­pared for a chance to play in the U.S. af­ter spend­ing his en­tire 10-year pro ca­reer at Ger­man clubs, in­clud­ing Aachen, Ein­tra­cht Braun­schweig and SV Sand­hausen, pri­mar­ily in the sec­ond di­vi­sion. He said he’s watched many MLS games, some he’d record in the wee hours of the Ger­man morn­ing, and read up on the league’s ec­cen­tric­i­ties, like the play­off sys­tem and salary cap.

“I know play­ers who were here and talked to some of them,” Kratz said. “They say, Kevin, it’s a great chance to in­crease your per­son­al­ity and see an­other kind of soc­cer. It’s grow­ing here in the last cou­ple of years. It’s really grow­ing, and I’m happy to be part of it and I’m really ex­cited to work with the team over the last cou­ple of weeks to have suc­cess.”

The diminu­tive 29-yearold has played in several mid­field ca­pac­i­ties and is ex­pected to pro­vide cover for in­jury un­cer­tain­ties in what re­mains of this sea­son while po­ten­tially vy­ing for a larger role next year. He’s ex­cited to put his ver­sa­til­ity on dis­play for his new club.

“They told me in case we need any­thing in the mid­field in dif­fer­ent po­si­tions, then I hope I am the right guy to help out there and to push in train­ing so that these guys who are play­ing right now are fit and that there’s some­one be­hind them so that they have to show well on the week­ends,” Kratz said. “But I have to get the sys­tem and all that. I’ve talked to the coach al­ready a few times and how they want their cen­ter mid­field to go back or to go wide to get the ball and how we are go­ing to do it. I have to learn quickly, but it’s good.”

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