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HARTFORD, Conn. — It’s a searingly hot June evening at Dillon Stadium, and Danny Barrera is conducting a soccer symphony for Hartford Athletic in the USL Championship. Each one of the midfielder’s movements builds toward a crescendo, which culminates in a virtuoso performance against New York Red Bulls II at Dillon Stadium.
Barrera finished with a goal and three assists in Hartford’s club-record 7-0 dissection of a Red Bulls II squad that featured seven MLS-contracted players in its starting XI (Editor's note: this stat was later changed to two goals and three assists which is a new USL Championship record). Every time the ball came off – mostly – his left foot, Barrera created melodic moments.
They started with smartly switching the play from right to left on the opening goal, and continued with a pair of deft one-touch assists on tallies during first-half stoppage time. He even later curled home an “elite level” second-half strike, according to coach Harry Watling.
“Danny is really clever,” the first-year Hartford manager said after the match. “He knows how to use his body, he knows how to manipulate the opposition, he knows how to create space.”
Clever attacking play isn’t the only reason the 31-year-old has cultivated a decade-long professional career in the lower divisions of American soccer, which can often be a nomadic experience.
Barrera has the third-most assists in USL Championship history (37 as of June 10), but trains more like a player who’s chasing down his first contract rather than one who’s a former U.S. youth international who shined at UC Santa Barbara in the late 2000s. He’s also grown from a player who previously led by example as a captain to more a vocally demonstrative skipper.
The Colombia-born, California-raised Barrera came into Hartford’s squad midway through its trying inaugural season in 2019 under Danish coach Jimmy Nielsen. Hartford lacked dynamism in the opposition half, and Barrera promptly provided some attacking vigor with three goals and a team-high four assists in 17 matches. Six of their eight wins came after Barrera joined the club.
The COVID-19 pandemic shortened the 2020 season, but Barrera was named captain and finished with two goals and seven assists. Hartford went 11-3-2 and made the playoffs with former Southampton and Tunisia defender Radhi Jaidi at the helm. And this year, with Watling arriving from England, Barrera is again at the forefront of their attacking intent.
So, how did Barrera get from California, where he spent a good portion of his amateur and professional career, to Connecticut? Paul Buckle, Hartford’s technical advisor, was Barrera’s coach at Sacramento Republic FC. Barrera played parts of three seasons in California’s capital city under Buckle and flourished as their captain and talisman.
Barrera said making a long-lasting career in the lower divisions is difficult.
“A lot of players get in and have some good years and then fizzle out,” Barrera said. He added that coaches like Buckle “that believed in me” gave him the confidence and freedom to hone his style of play, even as he was “chasing a contract or I was looking for my next job.”
“I never thought about anything but playing, and I knew that’s what I was going to do, no matter what,” Barrera said. “When I looked like I didn’t have anything, I just kept working through that, and when I have everything, I keep working through it. I never get too high when things are great or too low when things are bad. It’s just keeping a nice mentality of consistency, and I think that’s what I pride myself on, being a consistent player.”
Added Watling: “His creativity comes from his confidence, and his confidence comes from his preparation. He’s out on the pitch before most of the players. He’s organizing his own training to do what he needs to himself before he starts my training. It’s not an accident. It’s all come through his hard work and his dedication to being a top professional.”
Barrera said, “there’s no cheat code” for putting in the training time, which is as much mental as physical to him.
“Even if it’s warming up and you’re doing things like opening your legs up, I’m visualizing a ball coming and flicking it on even though there’s no ball,” Barrera said. “These are small things that I’ve been doing throughout my career that I think pay off for me technically.”
Barrera said as Sacramento’s captain, he was more apt to lead by example. Last season, he talked with assistant coach and now-technical director Luiz Silva about developing into “more of a vocal leader.”
“Whether it’s pumping you up a little bit or it’s getting on you a little bit, I’ve been evolving,” said Barrera, who added he’s more of a “big brother-type leader.”
The fraternal aspect of Barrera’s leadership style is on full display with second-year English midfielder Arthur Rogers.
“Arthur has just been solid the last two years. He’s one of the most technical guys on the team, in my opinion,” Barrera said. “He makes very good decisions and he’s very aggressive. We have a great trust where I can give him the ball and not worry about losing it, and he can do the same with me.”
Their partnership is evident in free-kick situations in the attacking third. Barrera and Rogers stand over almost all of them, and either player is comfortable with the other serving the ball or taking the shot. They’re both ranking members in the club’s “set-piece committee.”
As Rogers builds his career, he’s mindful of how hard he has to work every day. Rogers said that Barrera “presented” his story to the team.
“We got to learn a lot about him as a person and as a player, which was fantastic and it just shows the things that are possible for us here even in the second division in the U.S.,” Rogers, a 24-year-old London native, said. “There are so many doors that become available if you’re doing well and if you’re performing week in, week out.”
Barrera, who has four children under the age of 10, feels more settled in Connecticut. His family even purchased a house in nearby Burlington where “my kids absolutely love it.”
“We’ve grown so much closer together, where obviously through the years we have been traveling,” said Barrera, who plans to coach after his playing career. “So it’s nice just to get everybody together and become a stronger unit as a family, and we’ve definitely done that. We couldn’t have asked for a better place.”