CHESTER, Pa. – How big of a loss will it be for the Philadelphia Union when Tranquillo Barnetta leaves MLS at the end of the 2016 season and returns to his native Switzerland to play for hometown club FC St. Gallen?
A day after the Union announced Barnetta’s impending departure, Philadelphia head coach Jim Curtin left no doubt.
“He’s the best player that ever wore a Philadelphia Union jersey, in my opinion,” Curtin said Wednesday during his weekly news conference. “It’s a short history that the club has. But he’s a guy that gave everything for the team, gave everything for the fans, and did it the right way. You won’t meet many people like him in our game. And we want it to last now as long as possible.”
Considering the Union still have three games left in the regular season and are likely to make the playoffs, Curtin acknowledged that the timing of the announcement may seem “strange” to some. But he added that Barnetta wanting “to get out out ahead of it shows what kind of man and leader he is.”
And for Barnetta, playing in MLS for a year and a half has been the plan all along, to the point that Curtin said he turned down a more lucrative, longer-term offer when he signed with Philly during the 2015 summer transfer window.
“A lot of people say they’re not about the money, but Tranquillo truly means it when he says it,” Curtin said. “He came here at a very big discount to what his value was in the European market. And he had a goal of playing for his hometown club, which I respect at the end of the day. It’s been an honor to have him here.”
Barnetta, who played in three World Cups for Switzerland, has reciprocated that affinity for the Union. After showing just a glimpse of what he can do during the end of the 2015 season, the attacking midfielder has been one of the team’s most reliable players this season, scoring five goals and adding four assists to help push Philly to the brink of their first playoff appearance in five years.
And he’s grown to love his new city, new team and new league, even if he’s only been here for a short period of time.
“I had a great time here and I’m still having it,” Barnetta said. “But at the end, it was a hard decision because I grew up there, and to play in front of my family and friends was always a dream. I can do what I always liked to do. When I first left, I wanted always to come home at one point and play for my hometown.”
Barnetta has a unique relationship with FC St. Gallen. As a kid, he would walk 30 minutes to the stadium to watch their games, and he later signed his first professional contract with them when he was 17. But he was still just a teenager when he left his hometown club to begin a successful, decade-long career in Bundesliga.
Now 31, Barnetta wanted to return to St. Gallen while he was still playing at a high level and provide a memorable bookend to a storied pro soccer career.
“I was thinking, OK if I don’t do it now and maybe I have some problems because I know that I have a couple of injuries … then I think I would regret it if I stayed one more year [in MLS] and I’m not able to play back home,” he said. “That was the big point to go back home at this point.”
Before his long-awaited homecoming happens, though, Barnetta is hoping to help Philly go on a deep playoff run, saying he’s now “even more motivated to give everything I have.”
Curtin agreed that delaying the midfielder’s exit could work as a rallying cry over the final couple months of the season.
“This is by no means the end,” the Union coach said. “We want his last game with the Philadelphia Union to be an MLS Cup.”