Frequent contributor Jon Marthaler has written about virtually every sport in the Twin Cities, and fills in on Saturdays for the RandBall blog on StarTribune.com. He'll cover the professional soccer scene in the Twin Cities, whether at the Metrodome or at the National Sports Center.
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When Minnesota announced that it had signed the past two North American Soccer League leading scorers, fans might have rushed to the league website to find out just how many goals the team would be getting. There atop the 2012 scoring leaderboard was Pablo Campos, who scored 20 goals in San Antonio. Nowhere to be found, though, was Etienne Barbara, the other half of the dynamic duo; the striker didn't play in the NASL in 2012.
Barbara scored 20 goals for the NASL's Carolina Railhawks in 2011, and hoped that the season would be a springboard to success in Major League Soccer. But he endured a frustrating offseason issue with the strange "discovery rights" system in MLS, as Montreal neither wanted to pay him nor allow him to sign with another team. And when he finally did secure a move to Vancouver, to reunite with Carolina head coach Martin Rennie, he ended up beset by injuries, and made only two appearances.
If you think his frustration with the MLS system has subsided, think again. "One thing that I prefer in NASL is that at least they don't treat you just like a piece of merchandise," he says. "Because that's what MLS is. First you cannot negotiate your contract, you have to sign for four years. And then they can tell you to go home after six months. So that doesn't make sense. That's very disrespectful for a player. At least in NASL, they treat you better."
As someone who's been on both sides of the divide between the two leagues, he's also able to compare the two to each other - and he thinks they're not that far apart. "Obviously in MLS they have a lot better facilities, a lot more accessibility to higher end stuff," he says. "But hopefully the level of the NASL will grow, especially now that teams like Minnesota has a private owner and the New York Cosmos are in the league. We're expecting the level to go up."
"If [the NASL] really wants to push for high-end stuff, I believe that it can match up with the MLS. Most of the difference in MLS is made by the designated players [overseas or higher-paid stars, of which each team can have only a limited number]. You take out most of the DP players - I mean, we beat the Chicago Fire. That shows that even though we have not started the season, and they started their full team, we can still match their style of play."
Barbara is also excited to resume playing with Campos. The two scored 32 goals put together in Carolina in 2011, so they're quite familiar with each other - something that even Barbara can't quite explain. " That's a very good question," he says thoughtfully. "I guess he has what I don't have, and I have what he doesn't have. He's a tall target player. I try to be more mobile around him. We understand what kind of runs we like for each other and what kind of runs we try to give for each other. We combine very good together - I don't know how it happens."
Maybe it's just the accumulation of time that does it. The two have filmed a goofy promo video together and are rooming together for this year's season, and Barbara thinks that helps their game. "This is why we spend time together and everything, because we always try to stay on the same page," he says. "That's a bonus for us, to be able to do that, you know?"
Now, it's mostly a question of getting back to full fitness. The 30-year-old admits that his game has suffered from his lack of playing time in the past year, and knows that with the new league structure, he can't afford to start slowly. Says Barbara, "I am now playing [in Minnesota], but... I don't believe it's fair that the team that comes sixth in the overall league [as Minnesota did in 2011 and 2012] has a shot at the championship. Now we're facing a structure that every point counts and you cannot say, ah, I'm just going to be with the first six and I'll push it for the championship. Every point counts. Everything on the table is very important. "
And as far as judging success, he's using a rather simple criteria. "We have an owner that has invested this kind of money, and he wants to see results", he says. "And when he is happy, we are all happy. So we try to make him happy."
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