Pablo Campos made his season debut last Saturday in Atlanta, starting and playing throughout Minnesota United FC’s 3-2 comeback victory.
Etienne Barbara came off the bench, reuniting with Campos, a former teammate and fellow North American Soccer League most valuable player, for the game’s final 18 minutes. As Barbara checked into the game, Atlanta’s play-by-play webcast announcer declared it “the moment, if you’re a Minnesota fan, you’ve been waiting for.”
Fans are still waiting for the first goal or assist from Minnesota’s prized free-agent signings, who combined for 35 goals two seasons ago with Carolina.
The RailHawks are in town for a 7 p.m. game Saturday at the Metrodome, a meeting of teams tied for first place in the NASL, with the home debut of Barbara and Campos, together at last, serving as an intriguing subplot.
“Our focus for them is to become very good individually and also with the team,” United FC coach Manny Lagos said. “That tends to not happen overnight. It builds with the adversity you go through in a season.”
Been there, done that. Barbara (injury) and Campos (two-game suspension) missed a combined three games. And staying on the field is more important than ever given the NASL’s new playoff format in which the first-place teams from each of the season’s two halves meet for the championship.
Campos said he is excited to finally play at home and hopes to repay the support of fans who told him they feel the same way.
“I haven’t shown anything yet,” Campos said. “I need to prove every day I deserve their love and respect. I think they do respect me but I need to prove I am capable of doing something for the club.”
The luxury of proven goal-scorers is a new concept in Minnesota. United FC, formerly the Minnesota Stars, placed sixth out of eight teams with 34 regular season goals a year ago. In 2011 the Stars ranked seventh with 30 goals in the regular season — five fewer than Barbara and Campos.
A lack of scoring did not stop Minnesota from upsetting Barbara, Campos and high-powered Carolina in the 2011 playoffs en route to a league championship. While Barbara lavished praise on Minnesota’s defense — “They track, they run, they fight for every ball” — he said he would welcome an infusion of offense.
“If we can only adjust in the offensive third, it will change the whole game,” Barbara said.
The key, Barbara said, is developing chemistry with the midfielders. At Carolina, players such as Nick Zimmerman and Matt Watson helped Barbara and Campos create.
“As a striker, I depend on the people behind me,” Barbara said. “You need to have a midfielder who takes leadership with the ball and beats his man one-on-one. That changes everything because if somebody else has to step up to defend, that creates movement and someone is free. That’s the signal to Pablo and I that it’s time to move.”
Once in motion, the 6-4 Campos and the shorter but muscular Barbara are tough to stop. Barbara scored 20 goals in 2011, five more than Campos.