FC Cincinnati’s 2023 campaign has so far been defined by the play of Luciano Acosta but Álvaro Barreal’s play at left wingback isn’t far behind. He’s getting buzz in national media as an All-Star pick and does things that few players in MLS, let alone fullbacks, can do. (If you think that’s an excuse for me to drop in the highlight of his U.S. Open Cup goal against the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, you’re not wrong)
We can't believe it either.
— FC Cincinnati (@fccincinnati) June 7, 2023
But as we enjoy a Best XI quality season from Barreal in 2023, it’s worth remembering that 16 months ago, his future in the Queen City was murky at best. As Chris Albright took over for Gerard Nijkamp, Barreal was an expensive signing made by the previous regime, occupying one of the few roster slots where the roster could be overhauled. For new manager Pat Noonan, Barreal was a winger on a team that probably wasn’t going to play out-and-out wingers.
And yet, in June 2023, Barreal is an indispensable piece for a team sitting atop the Supporters’ Shield standings in MLS.
A Player On The Periphery
In an interview with CST before the 2022 season, Noonan was asked about Barreal and other players adapting to new positions to better fit the team’s structure going forward. His response has stuck with me ever since.
“They have to be open-minded, they have to be willing to be coached and and try new things, it might not be perfect right away, but typically, if you have a high soccer IQ, you can play multiple positions, you can figure out how to have success in different ways. And so we’ve asked, you know, a lot of our guys to be open-minded to try and new positions on the field. And then we as coaches get to evaluate that and see what works. And if it’s not something we like, you know, we go back to where this player is most comfortable. And, again, then it becomes where do they fall on the depth chart. And so, if you’re number two or three on the depth chart, well, you have to understand that your best opportunity to get on the field might be learning a new position. And that to me is players being open to new challenges. And if they are, then you know, they have a better chance of seeing the field when there’s players ahead of them. And that’s not always a negative. Sometimes there’s, you know, you might be two or three in the depth chart, but it’s because you have really talented players ahead of you at the moment. And so that’s what we ask of the guys just be open-minded about trying new things. And, and we see what works in the short term.”
With more than a year of retrospect, it’s not hard to see Barreal’s trajectory directly in Noonan’s answer. Barreal’s development from a U22 initiative winger signed by a previous regime inherited by a coaching staff with no plans to play with wingers to now with him being maybe a best XI player at a different position. Clearly, Barreal has a high soccer IQ and was either open-minded enough from the start or was convinced to make a position change. Whatever the case, Barreal has taken to playing as a defender, at least nominally.
It took a few opportunities but Barreal seized his chance at wingback in 2022. He made his starting debut at wingback in FCC’s 2-0 loss at Charlotte in March 2022 but really didn’t make the position his own until late June. But when he did, he didn’t give it up. Outside of a few games when Barreal deputized in midfield for Acosta, he started at leftback and was a key part of the Orange and Blue’s first run to the MLS Cup playoffs.
A Focal Point In 2023
Barreal has been even more central to the Orange and Blue’s success in 2023.
He is a key creative force for FCC from a position where other players can struggle to impact games. In a season where Acosta has taken on a much bigger scoring role with the absence of Brenner, Barreal has picked up needed shot-creating. His 4.15 expected assists per American Soccer Analysis ranks fifth in MLS, trailing out-and-out creators like Thiago Almada and Christian Espinoza and one-man-offensive machine Hany Mukhtar.
Barreal’s ability to provide width in possession or to play narrowly cause havoc for opposing defenders. Even with Brenner’s absence, Barreal and Acosta can combine on the left wing and play two-versus-one, creating overloads. So far in 2023, Barreal has the 22nd most touches in the final third of the field in MLS. The only other pure defenders he trails are Alex Roldan and Brooks Lennon. He also averages the most touches per 90 minutes on the team with nearly 68.
Noonan shaped FCC’s structure, both offensively and defensively, around finding ways to let Barreal impact the game. Noonan’s continuing decision to play with three centerbacks is, yes, partially due to roster construction, but it also allows Barreal to do what he does best: contribute in the final third of the field. The centerback that plays directly next to Barreal even makes a difference. Barreal’s work rate and commitment to trying to defend have never been in doubt, but playing a mobile centerback like Yerson Mosquera, or even Ian Murphy, next to him at left centerback provides a larger window to maraud forward.
On many teams, the late runner into the attacking penalty area is a central midfielder. Barreal often fills that role for the Orange and Blue and his pedigree as a winger makes him dangerous in those situations. So even when attacking play is focused up the right side, Barreal looks to make late runs in the box. FCC’s midfield double-pivot provides cover for that attacking movement. In those situations, Junior Moreno or Obinna Nwobodo can stay deeper, prepared to recycle possession or break up opposing counterattacks.
Barreal’s ability to pop up in possession just about anywhere in the attacking third should be on full display again with the arrival of striker Aaron Boupendza as a Designated Player. Barreal’s role as a primary playmaker in advanced positions in 2023 represents a step forward in his game but more consistent play from a second striker could raise his game even higher.