Friday, February 23, 2018
Sports

Former league MVP Barbara has been reborn with Rowdies

TAMPA — For the past two seasons, the soccer field has been an unhappy place for Etienne Barbara.

At the conclusion of the 2011 season, Barbara was the hottest commodity in the North American Soccer League, having led Carolina to the regular-season title and winning the league MVP and Golden Boot awards after scoring 20 goals and adding nine assists.

"That season, he was a handful," Rowdies coach Ricky Hill remembered. "He had all the elements that a striker needs. He could play with his back to goal, he could run with it behind defenders, he could finish with both feet, he was awkward to play against and he didn't let defenders have a rest."

During the offseason, Major League Soccer's Vancouver Whitecaps acquired Barbara's Discovery Rights from Canadian rival Montreal and signed the Maltese international striker.

But Barbara never made an impact in MLS. A severe sports hernia kept him off the field almost immediately upon arrival in Vancouver and took nearly 10 months to heal. He made two substitute appearances for the Whitecaps for 13 minutes of total field time.

"The injury kept me off the field the whole season, basically," Barbara said. "I cannot complain. It was my first major injury in soccer. It's difficult to play in MLS when you're coming back off of an injury like that and you have to wait to win your place."

After that disappointment, Barbara moved back to the NASL, signing a three-year contract with Minnesota, where he teamed with former Carolina strike partner Pablo Campos.

With the additions, Minnesota entered the 2013 NASL spring season as the prohibitive favorite, but Barbara started just six of 12 games, playing less than half (551) of the team's total minutes (1,080) and scoring only twice.

During the midseason break, Barbara was traded to Tampa Bay for Mike Ambersley. Upon leaving, Barbara was critical of Minnesota's Manny Lagos, saying the coach "doesn't know anything how to coach a team. No inspiration for the player, no communication with the player, nothing," he told the Minnesota Star Tribune.

"There were times in Minnesota when I wasn't looking forward to training anymore," Barbara said Thursday at Rowdies practice. "I wasn't motivated in doing it. … I was hating soccer."

In Tampa Bay, Barbara has been reborn, energized by a team that fits his style and a coach he respects.

"I didn't know in the NASL that you could be traded, so I wasn't expecting it," he said. "But I don't even have words to express how happy I am to be here. … Sometimes you find a team that plays more your style, and all of a sudden you start performing better.

"I have the feeling that I'm in the right place finally, and hopefully we can make it work here."

Barbara is still a work in progress. Having not played regularly the past two seasons, his fitness is a question. He has made two substitute appearances for the Rowdies, scoring a goal in 70 minutes of play.

Barbara, though, wasn't brought in to be a second-half sub.

"He just needs to find his way a little bit longer, and we have to be a little bit more patient with him," Hill said. "He's trying his best. I just think physically he's nowhere near where he was two years ago from the naked eye."

Barbara remains optimistic he can return to his 2011 form.

"I've been here for two games now, and the chances that we created here in two games are more than the whole first half of the season in Minneapolis," he said. "I don't know, I thank God or whoever I have to thank for being here and out of that situation."

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