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Broken promises and MLS disappointment but the American dream continues for Paddy Barrett

The former Dundalk man has swapped Cincinnati for Indianapolis and another excellent season could get even better.

Image: Indy Eleven

COMING NEAR THE end of his first season with FC Cincinnati, Paddy Barrett had reason to feel optimistic.

It was the club’s final campaign in the USL (United Soccer League) and they were steadily making plans for their expansion to Major League Soccer a couple of months later. Given the step-up, some players were understandably unsure of their futures.

But others, including Barrett, were given reassurances.

“I was playing week-in, week-out, I was playing well, I was captain of the side quite a few times and we won the regular season quite easily”, he says.

“We didn’t do so well in the play-offs and, unfortunately, it’s all about the play-offs over here. It’s disappointing in that way, that they care so much about a one-off game when anything can happen in 90 minutes. But I loved it in Cincinnati. I was told positive things by the manager and two weeks before we were actually informed of our futures, he told me I was his main centre-back and that I’d be coming to MLS with him. So to hear that and then, less than a fortnight later, have him turn around and tell me I was in a middle group of players he didn’t know he wanted to take or not…It had a lot to do with an international spot (an MLS expansion side is allowed eight), which I understand. But for a club that big and with that much money and power, they could easily have signed me if they wanted me that badly. They could have got me to apply for a Green Card because I know they did it with other players. But I had a good time there and when other clubs realised I wasn’t re-signing, my agent’s phone was hopping. So that goes to show that I did have a great season.”

He wasn’t the only Irish player let down by the mixed signals from management, with Richie Ryan suffering a similar fate after signing a two-year deal with the club. Still, Barrett was in demand and despite plenty of interest from outside the United States, he was keen to stay after an encouraging debut campaign. There were a number of suitors but a call from Indianapolis made his mind up.     

“A lot of clubs were ringing my agent, everything was going through him and I wasn’t speaking to anyone”, 

“And then Martin Rennie, the coach here at Indy Eleven, called me personally and showed that interest in me. He told me what I wanted, what he expected of me, said he’d been watching me throughout the season and told me about the entire organisation. He’s Scottish and probably understands me a little more in terms of my style of play. I was eager to come after I’d chatted to him and they offered me a good contract as well. A few days later, there was still plenty of interest but I decided on Indy. Martin said I’d be his main man and that’s how it’s turned out. I’ve captained the side since arriving and that’s about 30-odd games this year. So it’s been an unbelievable season for me on the pitch. Indianapolis is close to a few different places, including Cincinnati, which is a beautiful city and where I’d been settled. And when we’ve had a couple of days off, I’ve been able to head to Chicago, Orlando and Vegas, places I’ve always wanted to go and visit.”

Indy are an ambitious outfit. They’ve had their eye on MLS expansion for a while and were on the 10-team shortlist in late-2017. But when that was whittled down to a final four, they didn’t make the cut. Still, they’re pushing hard. And though there’s plenty of work to do to get the project over the line, a new soccer-specific stadium costing $150m is in the works. Most importantly, there’s a ready-made fanbase.

diujtyzv4aeb3fr-390x285 Barrett enjoyed an excellent season with FC Cincinnati but there were mixed signals from club's management as they prepared for an MLS debut.

Already averaging over 10,000 supporters at each home game, it leaves them ahead of both Nashville and Sacramento – both announced as MLS expansion sides and debuting in 2020 and 2022 respectively.    

Later tonight, they face Nashville in an Eastern Conference semi-final.

Just 180 minutes away from a championship decider. But Barrett still can’t quite wrap his head around the notion of play-offs, especially after a gruelling and exhausting regular season battle.  

“I’m not having it. I don’t like it”, he says. 

You’re the best team over 34 matches and you’re top of the league but still could get eliminated one game into the play-offs? Like, Phoenix Rising finished 18 points clear at the top of their conference and then had to win a sudden-death penalty shootout in their first play-off game to stay alive. Pittsburgh won our conference but I didn’t see anyone posting about the achievement of a regular season title. And it’s tiring as well. You play 34 games and then you have to be at your best. For a once-off. Our game could go to a shootout tonight and, bang, our season is over.”

“The best team over 34 games should be champions. If you want to have a play-off format, have a separate cup competition during the season. The end of the season should be the end of it. And they’re dragging ours out a little bit too. In MLS, the playoffs were Saturday/Wednesday, Saturday/Wednesday and done in two weeks. But we played last Saturday. We’re playing tonight. If we win tonight, then we play the following Saturday. And if we win that, the USL Championship final is another week after that. One game every seven days. In the regular season, we played every three days. And then, after all of that, you have to hit your peak. You have to turn it on. And that’s difficult. Not every player is going to turn it up to 100% because that’s impossible. So you’re hoping the group can stay motivated and be driven. 

“It’s mentally and physically tough because you’re playing so much and travelling so much. You bounce around every corner of North America. We travelled to come here. If we win tonight, we travel again next weekend. If we win that, it’s more travelling. And that’s why I don’t like the way it’s done over here. But I decide nothing. I’ll just continue to do it. And hopefully we’re focused and driven over the next few weeks.” 

Nashville finished four points ahead of Indy in the regular season and will provide tough opposition. They’re coached by Gary Smith, who led Colorado Rapids to an MLS title in 2010, while their squad is stacked with plenty of experienced faces, most notably veteran goalkeeper Matt Pickens who was part of Smith’s championship-winning side. 

“We know what we’re capable of”, Barrett says. 

original Barrett enjoyed some trophy-laden seasons at Dundalk prior to his move Stateside. Source: ©INPHO/Oisin Keniry/INPHO

“If we’re all at it and all ready, we’ll fight and press and make it an uncomfortable evening for them. It’s up to us to not give them an easy way out because a lot of teams do. They have that fear because it’s Nashville away from home, that they’re a big team and all of that. But we know exactly what we’re going there to do.”

You do get that buzz from playing at good venues and in front of good fans and there’s still a buzz going travelling. There were about four or five teams that expanded into the league this season and I was buzzing. Getting to see these places while doing what you love is fantastic. But it was getting tiring at the end of the season. From our final 10 fixtures, seven of them were away from home. It was just continuously Wednesday/Saturday games on the road and I was thinking, ‘Jesus, get me off this plane and just get me to Dublin’”.            

With Barrett as skipper, he’s the leader of a unique bunch. The dressing-room has over a dozen different nationalities ranging from American to Serbian to Senegalese. But it’s a natural continuation of what he learned in Cincinnati. 

“There’s a lot of different cultures here and Martin, in fairness, has made it a tight group”, he says.  

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“I think there were about 16 or 17 new players that arrived from various parts of the world. And he’s pieced us all together as one. In this league, you see so many different types of players, people, nationalities. And you learn how all these players play the game and adapt to their teams. So Cincinnati was a learning curve and a good one. It’s very fast here. ‘You try to score, we’ll try to score’, very up and down. It’s not necessarily like that at Indy but a lot of teams play like it and won’t leave you have possession and keep the ball. The minute they get it they want to score. It’s two minutes gone and they’re going hell for leather to score goals. But it’s been good here because we’ve changed our system so I’m in the middle of a back three, which I’ve never had before. So that’s different.”

And how does his sweet and tender Waterford tones fit in with the other voices?  

“I genuinely think my accent is getting stronger”, he says with a laugh. 

“I don’t know how but I can’t even say hello to somebody without them saying, ‘Ohhhhh, where are you from?’ It’s nice because it’s a great conversation starter. But then they tell me they’re 15% Irish. Like, I go on with it but inside my eyes are rolling and I’m thinking, ‘Jaysus, here’s another one’”. 

In Cincinnati, Barrett missed some home comforts. Famously, when he revealed that he was desperate for some proper Irish tea and porridge for his breakfast, members of the local community rallied and sent boxes of Barrys and Flahavans to him.

And despite being in his second year in the US, he still finds the separation hard at times.  

“You always miss home and I’ll get back soon enough”, he says. 

“The mother is hounding me again, ‘When are you coming? When are you coming? When are you coming?’ But I’ll do the same as last year. I’ll rock up to the door and say nothing to nobody. She nearly had a heart attack but it was worth it. She’ll tell you different.”

“I’ve been away 10 or 11 months and it’s starting to get a bit colder again. For five or six months, you’re chilling in 35 degrees and you’re not thinking about home at all. But now you’re starting. There’s a few more things that remind you. So I’m looking forward to getting back but I’m hoping that won’t be for another two or three weeks and after we pick up the championship.”  

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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