Álvaro Barreal isn’t the loudest voice in the room, but you can’t miss him. His bleach blonde head of hair is shaved on both sides, and there’s almost always a smile on his face and a mate in his hand.
“I have a routine. I like being at home, listening to music and drinking mates from Argentina,” Barreal told FCCincinnati.com. “Obviously if I have company or something I would like to get together and go out to eat and all those things, but I also like being at home, it keeps me calm.”
The traditional Argentine beverage is as emblematic of Barreal’s homeland as his high-energy style of play is of the club he’s proud to represent.
The 22-year-old from Buenos Aires, Argentina has made himself at home in Cincinnati, two years since the Orange and Blue acquired him from his hometown club, Club Atlético Vélez Sarsfield, on a U22 initiative deal.
But as he’ll tell you, it wasn’t always easy.
“It was a difficult situation when I arrived, but I knew what was coming. I knew that I was immigrating to a country, to a city, where I was not used to it. So it was difficult. I had a year or so that I suffered a lot while I adapted, and well, unfortunately we did not have a team that could compete too much.
“At the same time, I thank the coaches who were there at that moment, Jaap [Stam], who trusted me to bring me here. But I think that now I am more used to the team and the city. That helped a lot here too personally. I can perform better on the pitch than when I arrived.”
Barreal arrived in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, joining a new team in a new city in a new country where nothing was the same on or off the field. Cincinnati would win just two of the first 12 games Barreal played in, and the team really wouldn’t turn it around until Barreal’s second full season in 2022, when FC Cincinnati went from 14th in the East to 5th in one season under new head coach Pat Noonan.
Part of that adaptation meant changing positions several times to fit into the squad. The winger has played on both the right and left side, as well as the number 10, central midfield, and most recently, wing back.
“It’s not easy for a player to adapt to various positions,” he said. “I think we all like to play in one position, but mentally, last year I had to be strong trying to adapt to what the coach needed. I wanted to play. I wanted to be in the team, so I focused and I was able to adapt more to the wing back position, which is new for me. Now I am quite adapted, and I think that's the mentality, right? Being strong and focused on what the coach needs, and I don't have any problem.”
After missing time in the 2022 preseason while getting his green card, Barreal struggled to break into the lineup to start the season. He played just 17 minutes through the first four games, and it was clear that if he wanted to be on the field, he’d need to adapt. So in game five, a trip to expansion side Charlotte FC, he started the match at a new position, left wing back.
“At first it was difficult. The first game in the wing back position didn't go very well for me either. I was not very happy. Afterwards, talking with Chris, talking more with Ricky Paez, who is the one I talk to the most, I tried to understand. What If I could adapt to that position? I would be able to play, and be calm.”
Those conversations with General Manager Chris Albright, with assistant coach Ricardo Paez, and long days in the film room studying tape paid off, as Barreal started 28 of the next 33 games, including the last 19 games in all competitions. He put up career-high stats, including five goals and nine assists, which ranked fourth and second on the team, respectively.
Since arriving in September 2020, Barreal has made 75 appearances in all competitions for FC Cincinnati, scoring 11 goals and contributing 13 assists. He’s tied for second all-time in assists for the club, and he ranks fourth in club history in appearances, minutes, and goals.
Now, as he begins his third full season in Orange and Blue, he’s begun to turn heads both inside and outside of FC Cincinnati’s camp. He arrived early to the club’s preseason, and Noonan noted that he’s been one of the Orange and Blue’s best players so far, having already gotten on the scoresheet with a winner against USF.
“I think it’s been a massive change, both with the coach and the team, but also individually, myself too,” Barreal said. “It's not the same preseason that I had last year. Unfortunately, I was late for last year's preseason, so it was hard for me physically at first, but after I was able to adapt, I had a great individual year and as a group we had a very good season. This year, I was able to arrive early to the preseason I am totally focused on playing this entire season and with a lot of effort.”
It's more than individual accolades that are the goal for Barreal this year. After helping lead the club to a first-ever playoff berth and advancing to the Conference Semifinals, he has his sights set on more history.
“This year, I want to achieve something important. I want to make history with this club. I always like to dream big, and I would very much like to win a title. We will always fight until the end. Aside from that goal, I want to play.”
Barreal comes from a football family. His older brother, Jose Luis, plays professionally in Argentina with Club Atlético Ituzaingó. He credits much of his early learning of the game to him, from watching him and seeing what the path to playing professionally would look like.
“My mother, my family in general, my father and my siblings had a great impact on my life. They were the ones who supported me and helped me. I always tried to do things right for them. My brother is one of the most important people for me. He helped me, gave me advice. I give thanks to my family, they are why I can be here enjoying they game I love very much. I owe a lot to my brother, and also to my dad for supporting me.”
When thinking about the path it took him to get here, he has one thought: no regrets. Since he was 15 years old, he knew that soccer was more than just a passion, and that he always tells himself to enjoy the ride.
“Enjoy it, because you never know where you can end up, what you can be. So enjoy it. Enjoy as you did with your family and your friends and your people, always, that’s your responsibility.”
As he heads into 2023, he’s ready to show that last year was just the beginning.
“My hope this year, my goal, is to be able to play as much as possible and try to have a better year than what happened last year, as a group or individually. My dream since I was little was always to be able to reach European football. I think it's something that I'm dreaming of and as I said before, I like to dream big. But also, I want to do things well here in Cincinnati, and if one day the possibility of trying to emigrate to European soccer comes up, I would really like it.”