New import showing versatility
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.”