How Alvaro Barreal Became Indispensable for FC Cincinnati

His All-Star-level play creating chances for FCC’s strikers has kept Cincinnati in first place.

When FC Cincinnati head coach Pat Noonan fills out his team sheet prior to each match, there are a number of no-brainer starters: Lucho Acosta, Matt Miazga, Obinna Nwobodo, Brandon Vazquez, Roman Celentano. Alvaro Barreal has earned that distinction, too. After arriving in September 2020 from Argentinian side Club Atlético Vélez Sarsfield as an attacking winger, a stroke of good fortune has enabled the 22-year-old to find a cozy home as one of Major League’s Soccer’s elite wingbacks.

He didn’t suffer for playing time during his first full season in MLS. After appearing in five matches in the COVID-shortened 2020 campaign, Barreal started 26 times and appeared in 33 of 34 matches in 2021, registering three goals and three assists. But a FCC regime change brought in Noonan along with Chris Albright as General Manager to replace the fired Gerard Nijkamp, who had signed Barreal via Allocation Money and a reported $1.5 million transfer fee.

Barreal found himself firmly planted on the bench to start Noonan’s tenure. He didn’t make the matchday squad for the season opener in 2022, then totalled 20 minutes in three substitute appearances in the following three matches. Noonan kept tinkering the starting XI and the team’s formation, and the Argentine eventually netted a start in Week 5, a 2-0 loss at expansion side Charlotte. That match was Barreal’s first time playing left wingback, and it came two days after starting left wingback/left fullback Ronald Mattarita suffered a serious ankle injury while on international duty with Costa Rica.

Following substitute appearances in the next two matches, Barreal started 26 of FC Cincinnati’s remaining 28 forays, making left wingback his own. He did showcase his versatility, though, sharing time with Brenner in the No. 10 spot in late June when Acosta was suspended for three matches.

In the end, Barreal notched career-bests in goals (five) and assists (nine), the latter being the second-highest total on the team behind Acosta’s MLS-high 19 dimes. Barreal was rewarded with a contract extension through this season with options for 2024 and 2025.

“Álvaro showed tremendous growth in 2022 and became a critical piece in our group,” Albright said in the release announcing the extension. “He’s an elite talent who can excel in multiple positions for us, and we look forward to his continued development and production with FC Cincinnati.”

Barreal has elevated his play in 2023, with four assists through 10 league matches (all starts). In last week’s 1-0 U.S. Open Cup victory over Louisville, he assisted on the tilt’s lone score via one of his trademark left-footed crosses.

Barreal entered last Saturday night’s match in New England—an eventual 1-1 draw—tied for second in the league in chances created (23). Ten of those chances have set up shots for Sergio Santos, who has stepped in for the Italy-bound Brenner, an early indicator of a potentially prosperous partnership.

Leading up to this Saturday’s matchup vs. D.C. United, Barreal is first on the team in progressive carries and progressive received, two stats that reinforce that FCC’s attacking success flows through the left flank of the pitch that he operates in. If Barreal keeps up this elite level of play, a first MLS All-Star berth is in the cards.

Grant Freking writes FC Cincinnati coverage for Cincinnati Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @GrantFreking.

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