Danny Barrera searched for fame and fortune in Europe and on the other side of the United States, but his best shot at becoming a star may happen not far from where he grew up.
The 5-foot-6 bundle of energy, creativity and tenacity has been a dynamic presence since signing with Republic FC midway through the USL season, and he’s given the team a spark since coach Paul Buckle moved him from wing to center midfield in one of his first moves after replacing Preki.
Despite his diminutive stature, Barrera had an outsize presence in Republic FC’s 1-0 upset of Sunderland AFC and in a 1-0 loss to Newcastle United FC, friendlies against English Premier League rivals at Bonney Field last month. Barrera then teamed with Rodrigo Lopez in a new midfield-dominant formation introduced by Buckle on Saturday against Seattle Sounders FC 2 at Bonney Field.
Barrera and Lopez helped give Sacramento an impressive 2-0 victory that moved Republic FC within three points of Seattle and LA Galaxy II in the Western Conference. Sacramento hosts Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC on Saturday.
Republic FC technical director Graham Smith has history with Barrera. He watched Barrera and his older brother Diego as they grew up as soccer phenoms in Thousand Oaks. Danny Barrera, then at UC Santa Barbara, played for Smith when he coached the amateur Ventura County Fusion FC to the 2009 Premier Development League national championship.
“Danny is literally capable of doing anything on the pitch,” Smith said. “He has tremendous heart and is amazingly tough. He is extremely technical, very intelligent and can see things that others can’t. He’s very much like RoRo in that way.”
Barrera is well-traveled like Lopez, who played as teen for Chivas USA before being cut by Preki and playing with a number of clubs prior to Republic FC stardom.
After training with Sheffield United FC in England as a teen, Barrera yearned to play with the best in the world. The former U-17 and U-18 U.S. national team member and two time all-Big West Conference Midfielder of the Year tried out for clubs in Europe, including Northampton Town FC and Championship League member Derby County FC in England. He also briefly played with a top-level team in Serbia.
Although Barrera enjoyed the experiences, Smith thinks the trips set him back. England’s restrictive work-permit requirements for pro soccer players gave Barrera little chance to get a contract there, Smith said.
“Unfortunately when he was younger, instead of being logical about his approach to development, he had some people bending his ear and giving him the worst possible advice,” Smith said.
Barrera, 25, has moved around the United States, too, in search of the right fit. He played the past three seasons with three different teams in the second-tier North American Soccer League and was preparing to rejoin the NASL with another team, the Indy Eleven, when Smith called in the late spring.
Republic FC was slumping, with Lopez suspended three matches and the midfield thin because of injuries.
“We needed a spark, and I told Preki this is a kid who can help us,” Smith said.
Barrera was on board. He knew many of the players, respected Preki and heard Major League Soccer buzz surrounding the team. It also would allow more opportunities for his family to watch him play.
Most of all, he trusted Smith.
“I know he does things really well,” Barrera said. “He does things the right way.”
Though Barrera was signed as a center midfielder, Preki played him on the wing to fill a pressing need. But under Buckle, he’s back in the middle.
“I like being in the action,” Barrera said. “I like tough situations, where you can’t make too many mistakes.”
Barrera hopes to help Republic FC repeat as USL champions. But he’s unsure if he is ready to settle down, even though he’s seen how content his brother Diego is playing and “living the life” as a three-year pro in the Philippines.
Barrera wants to prove that, despite his lack of size and previous unsuccessful foreign forays, he can play at the highest level.
“Nothing is out of the picture,” Barrera said. “I really like it here because I’m getting better and able to play like I like to play. But my contract is up at the end of the season, and we know how things are in this business.”
Smith can only imagine how good Republic FC could be in future seasons with Lopez and Barrera playing side by side.
“I still think he has a tremendous career ahead of him and an opportunity to make a name for himself if he stays on the right side of the lines,” Smith said. “I know that Paul and the coaching staff think the world of him.”