Tranquillo Barnetta finding a home in the middle of Union's midfield

CHESTER, Pa. – It’s been almost a year since Tranquillo Barnetta signed with the Philadelphia Union but he’s still trying to get used to certain things about MLS.

Take for instance this week’s brutal road trip that sends the Union to the heat of Florida for a game vs. Orlando City SC on Wednesday (7:30 pm ET, MLS LIVE) followed by a a cross-country flight to the mountains to meet the Colorado Rapids on Saturday (9 pm ET, MLS LIVE) in a showdown between the top two teams in the MLS Power Rankings.

“Coming from Europe, we never had trips like this,” Barnetta told MLSsoccer.com shortly before the team left for the airport Tuesday. “We had maybe a bus ride for two hours and then you go back after the game. It’s something new for me.”

Luckily for Philadelphia, Barnetta seems to handle new things well. And it’s probably fair to say that his consistent playmaking abilities at the No. 10 position has been one of the biggest reasons why the Union (5-3-3) have vaulted into first place in the Eastern Conference heading into the grueling stretch.

“I think he fits the Philadelphia Union and the modern-day No. 10 where they do the running defensively and it’s a matter of volume,” Union head coach Jim Curtin said. “We know if we get him a lot of balls in between the lines and he can turn and face and run at defenders over the course of 90 minutes, he really wears teams down because he’s so active.

“All our guys are programmed to get him on the ball as much as possible, and he’s been doing really well creating goals and assists for us. He’s very valuable.”

Barnetta didn’t necessarily have the smoothest start in MLS, struggling at times to find his footing after coming over during last year’s summer transfer window. When the 2015 season ended, he lamented because he was just beginning to get into a groove. The 2016 preseason gave the Swiss international a fresh start, but a left knee injury set him back, holding him out for the first three games of the season.

Barnetta was then slowly worked back into the lineup, playing fewer than 30 minutes off the bench in each of his first three appearances this year. That cautious approach, he said, was an important part in him being able to play 85 minutes or more in each of the past four contests.

“It’s sometimes easier like that than when you directly play 90 minutes and maybe you don’t play well and you lose a little bit of your confidence,” Barnetta said. “I think we did a great job with that.”

Barnetta’s injury issues now look well in the past as the three-time World Cup veteran has collected a couple of assists and scored a dramatic game-winning goal that Curtin hailed as “something special” the last time Philly faced Orlando, on April 8th.

Another reason for his comfort level is that Barnetta has been exclusively deployed at his preferred central attacking midfielder position. Even though he’s played out wide for parts of his career, he is most comfortable in the middle.

“It helps if you can stay in the same spot,” he said. “You have a little more influence in the game [at the No. 10]. Sometimes on the outside it’s hard.

“I like to play at the No. 10 position -- and that’s where I will try to help the team the most.”