But everyone around FC Cincinnati remembers it: A trip to Charlotte FC early last season in which the Argentine, brought to MLS as a winger, was asked to make his debut as a wingback. The outing didn’t even last an hour, as Karol Świderski beat him in the sixth minute for an opening goal. Now, two games from winning MLS Cup as a wingback and getting attention from the Argentine national team setup, it’s clear Barreal’s highlight reel this season will be filled with more positive moments than frustrating ones.
“I had to get in there as the wingback and try to take on as much as possible defensively. I think, at the time, I struggled, but today I’m a bit more adapted to the position,” he told MLSsoccer.com before Saturday's Eastern Conference Final vs. Hell is Real rival Columbus Crew (6 pm ET | MLS Season Pass).
“At the start it was tough, it was really hard to adapt. I tried to do it as quickly as possible. Luckily, the coaching staff gave me confidence, and with the help of the team, everything was easier.”
Listen and learn
As Barreal alluded, the transition isn’t entirely complete, but he’s become a player that head coach Pat Noonan and the team can rely on both to produce those spectacular moments hitting the ball in the final third and to get back and ensure opponents don’t have easy chances at the back post like those he conceded at Bank of America Stadium.
Last season was a year of growth for both the fourth-year MLS player – taking to the position switch – and his club, which enjoyed a turnaround from a 20-point season in 2021 that saw it saddled with the Wooden Spoon to 49 points and an Audi MLS Cup Playoffs debut.
"Obviously you feel the change," Barreal noted. "Today, we’re living another reality than when I got here. There’s a really good energy."
Perhaps those good vibes contributed to the 23-year-old's positive attitude in taking on the positional change in 2022, even if Cincinnati general manager Chris Albright recalls it taking a fair bit of convincing for the Vélez Sarsfield product to see all the benefits of a new role.
“I think it took a lot of love from the coaching staff, honestly. I don’t know that he willingly accepted it early on, at least,” Albright said. “The game I remember when he played at Charlotte away, I don’t know that he understood the rigors of that position and the running, but I think he very quickly understood it was going to be the best way for him to get on the field and, frankly, a position almost tailor-made for him.”
As he kept working with Noonan and his staff and speaking with teammates, Barreal says he understood more and more about what it takes to defend well. As Cincinnati started to rack up results, Barreal continued to work, citing the ability to “listen, learn and watch a lot” as key to his success in locking down a starting job and making the injured Ronald Matarrita surplus to requirements. He surpassed his 25 regular-season starts in 2022 with 32 this season and played in all 34 league contests.
Barreal also tallied 5g/9a on the year and earned an MLS All-Star selection as Cincinnati completed their epic turnaround from perennial Wooden Spoons winners (2019-21) to hoisting the Supporters’ Shield. He added to his count in the playoffs, too, keying the Round One, Game 1 victory against the New York Red Bulls with a pair of goals sandwiched around a Luciano Acosta strike. All in all, Barreal is not just a starter for Cincinnati but a key piece for the Eastern Conference No. 1 seed.
“For me, I think Álvaro has maybe grown more than any player that I’ve ever been around as far as mentality and his willingness to defend and do the things that position asks,” Albright said.
Sky’s the limit
Everything shifted as Barreal adapted to his new role and Cincinnati found more results. Barreal said the energy grew in the city, with the fan base increasingly positive about the squad and the team feeding off those good vibes.
That bond with both Cincinnati and a locker room in which he feels connected, not just with countryman Acosta but with every member of the team, has the club dreaming of a double with an MLS Cup victory on Dec. 9.
Once this campaign concludes, Barreal will start to think about what could come next. Now that he’s shown what he can do as a wingback and still has the attacking instincts he showed upon arrival from Buenos Aires, Barreal is an attractive potential addition for plenty of top clubs around the world. Dutch powerhouse Ajax reportedly were interested during the summer, and after playing for Javier Mascherano at the U-20 level, a chance under head coach Lionel Scaloni and the Argentina senior national team doesn’t seem all that far off.
“The goal right now is to end the year as well as possible, to cap off the efforts we made this season. I’m really happy and relaxed in Cincinnati, but also it’s my dream to one day be able to play in Europe,” he said. “It’s a dream for me, and also I’d love to one day play in Argentina again. That’s another dream I have on the list, but right now I’m focused on this club and closing out the year in the best way.”
Albright understands the future for Barreal is outside of Ohio but sees plenty of opportunity for him to play a role in adding to Cincinnati’s suddenly expanding trophy case.
“At some point, he’s going to move on. Whether it’s the Argentina national team or a team in the Premier League or Germany, the sky’s the limit for what league he wants to play in,” Albright said. “Wherever he winds up in the future, whether it’s continuing to hopefully win championships with us or somewhere else, they’re inheriting a special player.”
Barreal's now a player who is willing to put in the work to change his role, to understand where he’s needed and to give his best to develop the skills he needs.
When the day comes to compile the tribute video, few will remember the early bobbles as a wingback in 2022. There are far too many great goals, lovely assists, trophy celebrations and, yes, strong defensive plays to squeeze in.