The worst-kept secret in Vancouver soccer is out. The Vancouver Whitecaps officially announced the MLS signing of Etienne Barbara.
Barbara, 29, has been on trial with the Whitecaps since January 17 when we got his rights from the Montreal Impact for Supplementary Draft pick Gienir Garcia. He arrived in training camp, practiced a couple of times, suffered an injury, and according to Marc Weber is out medium-term. He probably won't be back until April or May and didn't get into a pre-season game. This signing is entirely on the strength of Barbara's (NASL Golden Boot-winning) tenure with Martin Rennie's Carolina Railhawks. Admittedly, that's pretty strong: Barbara was probably the NASL's best player over three seasons since 2009.
He's listed as a striker, one of the eleventy billion on Vancouver's roster, but has spent some time on the wing (including in training camp) and will probably be employed there most of the time. He's also been an attacking midfielder at times, including with the Maltese national team, so his versatility will come in handy. He's also currently an international, but is married to an American and trying for a United States green card so it may work out.
This leaves the Whitecaps with only one MLS roster spot free, counting Barry Robson. There are no good guesses who'll fill that spot, and I expect it to remain open on March 10: Residency players Callum Irving and Caleb Clarke are still working with the first team but they're both fighting at positions where the Whitecaps have plenty of cover. (Irving has the best chance, only because Brian Sylvestre's injury situation is such a question.) My guess is that Barbara's signing means that Vancouver's opening day roster is set.
How much money is Barbara making? Presumably not the MLS minimum, since the reason Barbara refused to sign with Montreal is that Jesse Marsch was low-balling him. I daren't guess but I have a feeling that, when the MLS Players Union releases the salary list this spring, we'll be surprised by Barbara.
What role will Barbara play? The right wing position still seems open and nobody has seized it by the throat, although Lee Nguyen is getting his fair chance. He might become a starter when he comes back just by default, but Rennie's been willing to relegate his old players to the bench if they were out of their depth (as a few Cleveland City Stars players discovered in Carolina). Given Barbara's versatility, he'd make a valuable commodity on the bench.
Do I like this signing? It's hard to say.
I'd have really liked to see Barbara in at least one pre-season match. The greatest question for an NASL player is how they adjust to MLS speed. So far, most of Rennie's Railhawks are doing well: Matt Watson looks good early, Jun Marques Davidson hasn't been exceptional (but has the best pedigree of any of them), and one embarrassing incident with a passback aside I don't think Brad Knighton's had any problems. Rennie's instincts are working out early but Barbara, as a pure skill player who makes his money with offense, has more to prove than the rest of them. Ryan Pore hasn't been able to make it as an attacker in MLS and Roger Levesque has; these things can be hard to predict.
With Barbara so unproven, Rennie's taking a risk. But this is MLS so it's not much of a risk. If Barbara stinks we can waive him, no harm done, and everybody's happy. If a spectacular opportunity for a player comes along we still have a roster spot available. Barbara's an exceptional NASL player in the prime of his career. If we had an equivalent player from, say, the Mexican second division, I'd be willing to take the same chance: hold a roster spot for a first-class scorer from a lesser league and see what happens. If it works out, great! If it doesn't, he gets on the Peter Vagenas Train to nowhere.
The greatest cost may be in opportunity: if Barbara's not up to MLS and he gets 300 minutes that could have gone to Russell Teibert, Michael Nanchoff, or Omar Salgado, that's a problem. I hope Rennie sees that, and he's been so biased towards veterans in early games that I'm not confident. I don't think Rennie is so unprofessional that he'd throw Barbara into the starting eleven if he was a pylon in training, but I do think he'd give Barbara the benefit of the doubt over an equivalent but younger player. Remember, Rennie's always been an ambitious manager looking to move to the next level: he's going for wins, not development. (This is probably mostly a good thing.)
This signing can't be that bad and by the numbers Barbara's a good player. The risk is low. To put it another way, if we let Barbara go and he succeeded elsewhere I'd be furious, but if we keep Barbara and he fails here I'd be mildly disappointed. It's worth taking this chance.