Playing for the Carolina RailHawks in 2011, Etienne Barbara had what many would consider a dream season. Playing in NASL’s 1st season he set records in the league while racking up 20 goals and 9 assists. He was named to the NASL Starting 11. He was also named the league’s Most Valuable Player and the Golden Boot winner. He broke records in Carolina, records he had set himself in 2010. So in Babara’s mind he was excited to have the opportunity to possibly move up the soccer chain and get a chance to play in MLS. However, not all has gone how Barbara had hoped and dreamed.
IMS spoke with the goal-scoring forward from Malta where he talked of his frustration with MLS rules as well as an offer the Montreal Impact have made him. Babara’s rights are owned by the Impact in a discovery claim. Under MLS rules that means Montreal owns Babara’s rights until the end of the 2012 season. Barbara speaks frankly of the contract he was offered by Montreal.
The Maltese international also talked to IMS about his return to his national team and gives his take on what happened to the Carolina RailHawks that caused the team to implode down the stretch after playing so well in the first two-thirds of the season.
IMS: The Montreal Impact confirmed to me in early December that they own your rights through a “discovery claim” they made on you when you were still playing with Carolina last summer. When did you first find out that Montreal claimed the right to sign you?
Barbara: In November I was on holiday with my girlfriend after the season and Nick De Santis called me up and told me that the new coach (Jesse Marsch) was interested in me. They told me he wanted to see some of my highlights. But I felt they were wasting time because they were signing other players but they were in no rush to sign me because they already own my rights. They just weren’t getting back to me. It was frustrating. Beside, what do they have to see? I have played Montreal 10 games in 2 seasons. Four times each season and the playoffs. They know what sort of player I am. They know already if I can be of help to the team. Now we are in January and as far as I’m concerned we are just wasting time. Plus, I can’t talk to any other team because they own me.
The problem is in the rules. America has everything that any other country in any other sport should envy. You have facilities and everything in your favor and then you have rules like that. Montreal made me a bad offer.
Look, I’ve scored 20 goals and had 9 assists and I won the best player of the league. And for what? For nothing in America. Because I’m stuck with Montreal and they don’t want to pay good money. From what I understand, they are just holding my rights to try to get the best offer from somebody else. How can Montreal own my rights without even talking to me or paying me anything? If they don’t want me they should just release me but obviously they want money for me. But who gives the right for that club to own me? That happens only in America. To own me without even talking to me or paying any money to me?
IMS: Did your former coach, Martin Rennie explain how Discovery Rights work? Has he expressed any interest in signing you if Montreal doesn’t sign you?
Barbara: Yes, he did explain how the MLS rules work. I think he would like to sign me but I think Montreal wants the same amount for me as they are willing to pay me. It’s ridiculous. I’m frustrated and there’s nothing I can do about it.
IMS: Previously you told me your agent was from Scotland and wasn’t very familiar with MLS rules. Have you attained another agent from the U.S. or Canada who is familiar with the very different rules of MLS?
Barbara: The agreement with my agent from Scotland expired after my first season with Carolina. I don’t have an agent at this time but I have been talking to someone about representing me.
IMS: Your contract with Carolina was over after last season. Would you consider going back there or to another NASL team if you can’t work out a deal with Montreal, or would you prefer to stay in Europe?
Babara: I’ve played in Europe and played in the States. The level of quality is quite good in the NASL. In fact the level improved this past year over the year before.
If I don’t get an offer from MLS I would consider playing in the NASL if they considered housing as well as wages, like Carolina did. But I’m keeping the NASL as my last option. If I’m in Europe and I score 20 goals in a season, that usually means you get a better offer with a better team. Here I get offered the same or less. It’s crazy! I don’t know what else I could have done better last season. It’s so frustrating… (Barbara trails off and sighs) I just don’t know what to do about it?
What happened with me last year was special. It’s not something that happens every season for a player. I thought this would be my break point to something big in my career. But I’m still stuck like I was the previous season when I scored only 8 goals and some assists.
I would love to have my resume say “I played in MLS” or some other top league. But at the end of the day I’m 29 years old my friend and I’m looking for a good contract. I would go just about anywhere, as long as it’s a fair contract. I might look toward Asia because there is good money for playing there right now. As much as I want to be in the States it’s really not worth it. MLS would be a benefit to me for my resume only to say I have played in MLS. Apart from that and as things stand with Montreal, I’m benefiting from nothing.
IMS: I know Brad Rusin left the Carolina RailHawks about midseason last year to sign a contract in Europe. Everyone knew he was good but perhaps they underestimated what he meant to Carolina. Then your coach Martin Rennie announced he was leaving the RailHawks at the end of the season to move up to MLS and coach the Vancouver Whitecaps. In your opinion what happened to the RailHawks the last third of the season that they played so poorly after playing so very well early on?
Barbara: You just said it. We lost Brad who was such a strong player, an anchor in the defense. We never really replaced him. Then when Martin announced that he was going to Vancouver it was like most of the players got more egotistic and individual rather than playing for the team, something I don’t agree with. Because if we had stayed more compact and played as a team it would have ended up being better for all of us as individuals in the end. If we had all played together we would have had a chance to be noticed more by other teams. I just can’t understand it. We were so far ahead of everyone in the league and then we ended up only a couple of points ahead of Puerto Rico. That was just ridiculous.
We won the league but we lost the last 5 or 6 games. We tried to come back together as a team when we played Minnesota. We made the biggest effort I’d ever seen the RailHawks make when we played the Stars at home in the second leg of the playoffs. We got a bit unlucky in that game but that’s also part of the game. So you can’t take that away from Minnesota. They went on to win the championship against all odds. We let Minnesota in the Championship by allowing them to win in that last regular season game. What Minnesota had more than us was a great collective effort as a team. We allowed a stupid goal in the 90th minute in the first game. The we gave them two own-goals and we lost with the PKs. But it’s part of the game and you certainly can’t take anything away from Minnesota. They earned it.
IMS: In hindsight do you think Martin should have waited with his announcement until the end of the season?
Barbara: I don’t know about that? How can you keep something like that a secret? It would have been very hard even from Vancouver’s side of things. I think that’s why Martin wanted to tell us before it got out to the media which I think would have happened.
IMS: So what you are saying is it was up to the players on the RailHawks to remain professional about the way they handled the news and continue to make a concerted team effort?
Barbara: One-hundred percent correct! I don’t blame Martin for telling the players he was moving on. He could have left when he told us but he didn’t. It was his choice to stay with us until the end of the season. We just weren’t mature enough as players to keep playing collectively like we did before the news.
Since early December Barbara has been on an extended visit at his family home in Malta over the holiday season. He plans on returning to the the U.S. soon. However, Babara will have to travel back to Malta in February. The forward used to be a fixture with his national team but had a falling out with former coach John Buttigieg who has recently been fired along with assistant coach Carmel Busuttil. Buttigieg was let go after Malta finished bottom of their group for Euro 2012 qualifying.
Barbara, who has not made a national team appearance in over 3 years, said the federation called him up as soon as he arrived back in Malta and asked him to be part of the National Team again. Babara will join his team when they play Liechtenstein on February 29th in a friendly.
“I’m very excited to represent my country again and to wear the national team shirt,” said Barbara.