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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Minnesota United signed striker Etienne Barbara in the off-season, but traded him Thursday, before the second half of the season even began. According to Barbara, he clashed heavily head coach Manny Lagos, a conflict that led to his departure from the team.
The striker spoke angrily and at length from the airport in Tampa, where he was with the rest of the Rowdies, preparing to travel to San Antonio for their game today. "Now that I’m out of there, I wanted to speak about this," he said. "Minnesota people think that Manny is some sort of god in soccer because [the team] achieved what [they] achieved - the championship and the final of the other [year]. But trust me, I tell you the honest truth: it’s not like that. Manny doesn’t know anything how to coach a team. No inspiration for the player, no communication with the player, nothing. It’s the rest of the crew that does the job. It’s the assistant coaches that do the job. The captain does the job. This is how [Minnesota] survives."
His diatribe helps shed light on Minnesota's decision to move him on, only halfway through the season; it seems clear that the relationship between player and team deteriorated to the point that team chemistry was affected.
Barbara had a number of criticisms of Lagos, foremost of which in his mind was what he felt was the team's lack of tactical discussion and preparation. "What kind of coach in four years doesn’t do one session of tactics?," he asked. "Why do I have to come there and I’m a new guy and I have to go to ask the coach, and I say coach, please, we need to start doing some tactics, we’re not on the same page. And he takes it against me because of that. I go ask the assistant coach, or the other players, and the other players tell me we never did tactics in four years. How do you play if you don’t do tactics? If nobody is on the same page? And the answer is, we figure it out, we figure it out ourselves on the field. I said, are you kidding me? I’m not up for this. I said, I don't like this kind of stuff. So people have to figure it out themselves, the way they want to play on the field, and how to motivate themselves, and they have to go to speak to the assistant coaches because if you try to speak to the coach he will punish you or take it against you. I don’t understand it."
The forward, who started six of the team's twelve games and came on as a sub in another, said several times that he felt like he was being punished for speaking up. "I am a stand-up guy," he said. "I don’t complain behind his [Lagos's] back. I go to his face and I tell him face to face. He got that in the wrong way, because I was only trying to help the situation and get the team better at soccer. He took it against me and he started putting me on the bench."
Beyond denying that Barbara was benched for bringing his criticisms up, Lagos refused to get drawn into a war of words, saying only, "Nobody wanted Etienne to be successful more than the club did. We wish him the best."
Barbara also spoke about his struggles to meet what he considered excessively high fitness standards with the team. "I don’t expect the coach to tell me, okay, you’re not fit enough, so you have to go and do extra fitness alone," he said. "And he schedules a fitness instructor, and he cannot get me game fit. I will never be game fit [enough] for him. We are always running off the ball, we don’t play soccer. How can I be game fit? I’m not like Miguel [Ibarra], 22, 23 years old, all lightweight that can run all day. I’m 5 foot 11, 200 pounds. I can’t run all day up and down. I play with the ball. You can rest on the ball. You make the ball move, you make the other guy tired. How many games did we play, twelve games - we never changed the situation, we’re just hoping and wishing.
"This is not athletics. This is soccer. We try to play soccer here, not athletics. If you want to just run after a ball, then go into athletics. I tried to play soccer, with the ball."
Barbara felt that the team's lack of tactical discussion led to a general team confusion, especially in the attacking third of the field. "We’re always chasing after the team we played, chasing the ball and hoping and wishing that something happens and we score a goal," he said. "...But we are not creating any style of soccer. We didn't have a style of soccer... We just play a game in which you’re hoping and wishing that something happens."
As the 2011 NASL Most Valuable Player, Barbara thought that this especially showed up in the lack of goals from the team's MVP duo up front. "I mean, me and Pablo scored 32 goals in Carolina [in 2011]," he said. "I scored only two [this year]. Pablo scored only four. Pablo played all the games, I played half the games of the first round, because he [Lagos] wanted to keep me on the bench. So there is something missing, when you see the two MVPs in the last two years cannot score a goal and find it very difficult to score goals. It must be something that is not working in a team."
The outspoken forward has publicly disagreed with team management before, notably during his MLS experience with Montreal and Vancouver in 2012. After his departure from Carolina in 2011, he spoke out about the team's collapse. He says, though, that he is speaking for the rest of the United players on this issue.
Said Barbara, "Most of the players, no matter what they say, I lived with them day by day every day for the past five months. They are not happy. You can go and ask them and they will tell you they are the happiest person on earth here. But they will never tell the truth because they are afraid of losing their jobs. I’m not. I’m not. I played soccer all my life. I’ve seen good coaches and I’ve seen plenty of good players in my life. I speak up whenever I see something that I think can help the team, and I don’t expect the coach to hold it against me for trying to help improve the team and help improve our game."
He did, however, have good things to say about his time in Minnesota. "I really wish to thank [team president] Nick Rogers and [team owner] Dr. Bill [McGuire] for bringing me there. They are fantastic people," he said. "They are doing a great job and I am very happy that they came into soccer. I really wish to thank them for the time they gave me and for bringing me there.
"I’m the kind of player that express my emotions, and I was punished for that. I feel sorry because I really enjoyed my time there. I like the players, I like Nick. I admire Bill and what he’s trying to build. And I love the supporters there. I like being in the city. But I cannot stand the coach. I’m sorry, but I can’t work with a person like that. So, better that I’m out of there, and I’m looking forward to my new adventure with a new team and in a new city."