One of the first moves Paul Buckle made after he replaced Preki as Republic FC’s coach last season was to move Danny Barrera from wing to central midfielder.
Barrera has responded this season by leading the USL in assists and has helped Sacramento compile an 8-4-5 (29 points) record, tied for second in the Western Conference. Last Sunday against Orange County Blues, Barrera recorded his fifth and sixth assists of the season. The team’s captain also extended his club record by recording at least one assist in five consecutive matches. The team plays Saturday night at the Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC.
The former UC Santa Barbara star signed with Republic FC in early June last year and played in 20 matches, recording two goals and three assists. He had a match-winning goal against Arizona United SC and re-signed with the team in December, two months after Rodrigo Lopez left Sacramento.
“The stats don’t lie,” Buckle said. “(Lopez) was a little more of a goal scorer, while Danny’s game is to stay back a little more. But both players can change a game in an instant.”
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Barrera, 26, has ties to Republic FC director of football Graham Smith. Barrera played for Smith when Smith led the Ventura County Fusion, a Premier Development League club, so when Republic FC was looking for help last summer, Smith called Barrera.
“Sacramento is a great soccer town, and the club is the best I’ve seen on our level,” Barrera said. “I knew that I was coming to a great team and knew it would be a good opportunity to get better.”
Barrera, as well as every Republic FC player, knows that a standout season in the USL can boost his visibility with a NASL or even a MLS squad. As with minor-league baseball players, getting to “The Show” is the goal, and if a player can help his team win a title along the way, even better. Barrera sees Republic FC coming together at the right time for a return to the playoffs and a run at a second USL championship in three seasons.
“There was a big transition over the offseason, and we knew it was just a matter of time before we started to jell after we got to know each other,” Barrera said. “We’re putting the ball into the back of the net now because we’re starting to hit our stride.”
Buckle said Barrera is the team’s quarterback, and like any good quarterback he has built the kind of playing relationship with his teammates that he knows when and where they are going to be running on the pitch. That allows him to put the ball onto their dominant foot, or into a small area on the field to create scoring opportunities.
That’s why Barrera takes the kick on all of Republic FC’s set pieces. His left foot is dangerous to opposing goalies, as five of his six assists have come on set pieces, something that Republic FC struggled with last season.
Republic FC defender Mike da Fonte scored his first goal of the season July 2 against the Seattle Sounders FC 2 on a beautiful free kick from Barrera, who launched a shot from the left side across the goal mouth from approximately 30 yards out that found da Fonte on the right, who then headed it past flat-footed keeper Charlie Lyon.
The pair hooked up on another set piece four days later against the Real Monarchs at Bonney Field when Barrera sent a low, laser-like shot to the box from near the left corner to a slashing de Fonte, who got in front of keeper Lalo Fernandez for another header. Barrera added a goal of his own in the 57th minute of that 3-2 loss.
Barrera found da Fonte again for the first goal in last Sunday’s 3-3 tie at the Orange County Blues. da Fonte became the third player in Republic FC history to score in three consecutive matches when he took a cross pass from Barrera and hammered home a volley for a 1-0 lead. da Fonte will have to wait a match before trying to set the Republic FC record for consecutive matches with a goal. He is suspended for today’s match in Colorado after getting two yellow cards against the Blues.
“You have to be ready at all times because (Barrera) will send one right to you,” said da Fonte, who played for the New York Red Bulls II last season. “I’ve been able to get off my guy, Danny has put the ball on me and I’ve been putting them away.”
Barrera was considered the nation’s top college recruit prior to his senior season at Westlake High School in Westlake Village in Ventura County.. That’s the same high school that produced U.S. National team players Eric Wynalda and Cobi Jones. But Barrera left Westlake to enroll in the U.S. Under-17 residency program, where he finished his high school studies, in Florida. At 17, Barrera was the youngest player on the U.S. squad at the 2007 Pan-American Games. He later played for the U-18 national team and played three seasons at UCSB where he was a two-time All-Big West Conference Midfielder of the Year.
As a pro, Barrera tried out for clubs in Europe, including England’s Northampton Town FC and Derby County FC. He also briefly played with a top-level team in Serbia. From 2012 to 2015, the 5-foot-7 Barrera played more than 50 matches for three teams in the second-tier NASL.
His international experience and love of the sport has Barrera thinking about a future in coaching. He said he gets calls from coaches from multiple levels asking for his opinion on players. He said it’s his way of networking and he’ll use his contacts when it’s time to transition from a kit on the field to a shirt and tie on the sidelines.
Buckle said he can see Barrera coaching in the future. But right now he needs Barrera’s left foot and his leadership.
“Danny always wants the ball,” Buckle said. “He’ll never hide and he leads by example. That’s why I made him team captain. He does it all for us. And when he wants to coach, he’ll do well in that too because a lot of players know how to play the game but few learn how to play it. Danny has learned how to play it.”
Mark Billingsley is a Carmichael-based freelance writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @editorwriter001.