Last summer, the Philadelphia Union made arguably one of their biggest signings in franchise history when they acquired three-time World Cup veteran Tranquillo Barnetta. And they wasted no time throwing him right into the mix as the Swiss midfielder started nine of the team’s final 12 games, logging one goal and three assists.
But now that he’s getting a full preseason under his belt, the Union believe Barnetta is poised for even bigger things in 2016 as the engine of their offense in a central attacking midfield role.
Before the regular season begins, learn more about Barnetta’s soccer roots, his off-field interests and what drew him to MLS.
He played for his hometown team as a teenager
As a kid, Barnetta would walk about 30 minutes from his home in St. Gallen, Switzerland to the old Espenmoos Stadium to watch FC St. Gallen play.
And before he knew it, he was playing for that very team, signing his first professional contract as a 17-year-old and spending the first three years of his pro career with his hometown club.
“It was amazing,” Barnetta said. “One year before, I was a supporter behind the goal. Then you are on the pitch and you’re playing. And you know all your friends are there, watching you play.
“I always said that everything after that was something [extra] because it was always my dream to play for St. Gallen.”
He fulfilled another lifelong dream by playing in the Bundesliga
Of course, because St. Gallen is right next door to Germany, he also watched a lot of Bundesliga on TV as a kid.
“We are so close in St. Gallen that the Bundesliga is more famous than the Premier League,” he said.
And the talented midfielder got a chance to play there in 2004 when Bayer Leverkusen snatched him up before enjoying a 10-year career in the Bundesliga that also included spells with Hannover 96, FC Schalke and Eintracht Frankfurt.
Some of his favorite memories from Germany include scoring his first goal with Hannover (while on loan from Leverkusen) and the famed derby games between Schalke and Borussia Dortmund.
He played in his first of three World Cups with Switzerland 10 years ago
“That’s crazy,” the 30-year-old laughed when thinking back to the 2006 World Cup. “That shows me I’m already old a little bit.”
The memories of that tournament remain fresh, though, as Switzerland won their group without conceding a goal in front of many of their fans that made the short trip to Germany.
“The spirit of that team was perfect,” he said.
He’s scored goals on the biggest stages
Barnetta was a big reason for Switzerland’s success in the 2006 World Cup as he scored a goal vs. Togo in their second game and was later in the running for the tournament’s Best Young Player award.
Right up there with that goal were the two he scored vs. England at Wembley Stadium during Euro 2012 qualifying – within three minutes of each other.
“That was an unbelievable moment,” he said. “I have a couple of them. I’m happy to think of those moments. It’s always nice to think back.”
He’s a pretty good tennis player
He doesn’t get to play much during the season, but Barnetta likes to play tennis with friends between seasons.
“After this offseason, my forehand is a little better,” he said.
Naturally, he loves his compatriot Roger Federer, perhaps the greatest tennis player of all time.
“To see what he’s done over all these years, that’s amazing,” Barnetta said.
But he’s learning to love other sports too
Since coming to the United States, he’s watched more baseball and basketball. He still doesn’t completely get “the other” football, but he enjoyed watching the Super Bowl with his teammates down at a sports bar in Florida on Sunday.
“It was nice to watch with my teammates,” he said. “They know a little more about American football than me, so they can explain a couple of things.”
He enjoys American comedies … especially ones with tigers locked in bathrooms
No intense movies for Barnetta, please. He prefers to laugh when he goes to the theater.
“It doesn’t have to be too much action,” he said. “If it is, I really don’t like it. I like The Hangover – stuff like that.”
He speaks five languages
English. German. Italian. Spanish. French.
Those are all of the languages Barnetta can speak, although he says his Spanish and French isn’t perfect.
“I can talk with teammates and stuff, which is the most important thing,” said Barnetta. “But I can’t speak about politics or anything in Spanish or French.”
He added that his Italian isn’t great, either. But he has a lot of Italian roots as his grandfather was born in Italy and he holds both Swiss and Italian citizenship.
Playing in MLS is a new, fun challenge for him
When Union head coach Jim Curtin and technical director Chris Albright met with Barnetta and his dad last summer, they sensed he wanted a new challenge. And they sold him on the attractiveness of MLS, which Barnetta has now seen firsthand.
“You see what clubs are doing with new stadiums, building new training facilities – that’s a really good thing,” Barnetta said. “Every year I think it’s a little better, and I’m happy to be a part of that improvement.”
He’s embracing a leadership role with the Union
Despite only being with the team for a few months last year, Barnetta wore the captain’s armband a couple of times.
He may do so again in 2016, perhaps when Maurice Edu isn’t available. But armband or not, he’s definitely going to be one of the team’s leaders, along with Edu and the other veterans.
“I think it’s important that you have three or four guys on the pitch that show the [younger players] which direction to go in,” he said. “I’ll always try to be one of those players.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at email@example.com.