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A Philadelphia Union blog hosted by Christopher A. Vito and Matthew De George

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Swiss watch: Where Tranquillo Barnetta ranks among Union signings

Tranquillo Barnetta's exploits in the Bundesliga and UEFA Champions League
with Schalke rank him as one of the most impressive players
the Union have ever landed. (AP)
From the time Tranquillo Barnetta’s name surfaced as a serious transfer target of the Philadelphia Union, there was a debate that cropped up among the select group of Union media. If the Union could land the Swiss winger, as they officially did Wednesday, where exactly would he rank in the annals of Union history?

It’s a superficial way to appraise a player with all of three training sessions at PPL Park under his belt. But in a league where the Union constantly fight (often in vain) to carve out a niche of attention, the public relations splash of any move is a consideration, one that shouldn’t but often does outweigh the tactical implications.

With that in mind, let’s count down where Barnetta ranks among fellow Union acquisitions, in terms of his profile upon arriving at PPL Park and the accomplishments he’s compiled in his pre-Union career.

(Honorable mention goes to Maurice Edu, who’d finish sixth on this list. Old Firm Derby goals have a way of making you legendary in certain corners of the world, though one successful foreign stint does not a career make.)

5. Kleberson

Kleberson’s name was well known in the world of soccer, more for his international than club exploits. He was a fixture in Brazil’s run to the 2002 World Cup title, setting up the second of Ronaldo’s pair of goals in the final, then he made a surprising return to the squad in time for the 2010 run. He remains one of 10 World Cup winners to play in MLS. Less auspiciously, Kleberson is known as perhaps one of Sir Alex Ferguson’s biggest transfer blunders for his poor stint with Manchester United starting in 2003. Though he stabilized his career in Turkey with Besiktas, the midfielder proved his success for club was largely dependent on being in Brazil, and even then, his production trailed off long before he was the makeweight for shipping Freddy Adu out of town in May 2013.

4. Carlos Ruiz

It’s worthwhile to wonder how a player whose European experience consists of 16 matches with Aris Thessaloniki in Greece in 2010-11 can rank among the elite in such a Euro-centric view. But Ruiz’s cameo with the Union in 2011 lent legitimacy to the club. Here was an MLS legend whose 88 goals still tie for 10th in MLS history, though he hasn’t improved on that tally since 2011. A sign of El Pescadito’s value is that the Union actually managed to profit off his tenure, selling him to Mexican club Veracruz. Ruiz was the MVP of MLS and MLS Cup in 2002, leading the Galaxy to a title. He had success with the Galaxy and FC Dallas over long stretches of MLS’ formative years. And he is the all-time leader in goals and caps for Guatemala. Europe or not, he was a bona fide CONCACAF legend.

3. Freddy Adu Adu’s arrival in the summer of 2011 sent Philadelphia into full on dream-mode. He’d finally reach his full potential under first coach Peter Nowak, the fans opined. The first designated player in Union history (when that was still a big deal) was the American star that could catapult the team to Philadelphian relevance if not MLS prominence. It worked immediately, with Adu aiding the playoff charge the in summer of his acquisition. But from the perspective of this appraisal, his opening salvos as a pro were lacking. He showed glimmers at D.C. United and was a non-factor at Real Salt Lake. The move to Benfica imploded, and loans in three countries ensued. Adu vaulted into the Union’s consciousness with a strong showing in the 2011 Gold Cup despite being an eye-raising addition to the roster. Adu’s marketability always exceeded his on-field value: Let’s not forget that he was confined to the Turkish second division before the Union threw him an MLS lifeline.

2. Faryd Mondragon The goalkeeper’s legacy has actually grown since he’s left the Union. When Peter Nowak landed him in 2011, Mondragon not only filled a need by alleviating the lazy Susan of goalkeeping mediocrity that was the Union’s inaugural season, but he also brought a wealth of experience. He was well-traveled, for sure, but six seasons at Galatasary and three for FC Koln spoke volumes. Here was a player with experience in the Bundesliga, Ligue 1, La Liga, plus a variety of South American Leagues. Mondragon’s international profile was already remarkable – the man debuted for Colombia before MLS was founded – and it’s only been burnished since. To think that took part in qualification campaigns for six World Cups, played in three finals and goes down in history as the oldest player ever to play in a World Cup in phenomenal. Some of those accolades were accumulated after he left the Union, but recall that he was on the upswing when he arrived in Chester, having recently ended a five-year absence with the national team. He may have turned 40 at PPL Park and may not have had the mobility he once did, but he’s still the only Union goalie to play a playoff game, a distinction that appears safe for another fall.

1. Tranquillo Barnetta In the end, there’s no competition from the others. Adu’s name may have generated more buzz, Mondragon’s may have constituted a more fitting marriage of need to availability, but look at the CVs and there’s no comparison. I mean, the BBC targeted him as one of the top 10 free transfers of the summer in the world, assuming that a team in a top-5 league would land him. He’s been to three World Cups. He’s been capped 75 times for and scored 10 times for a program consistently in the top 20 in the FIFA world rankings. He’s played in the Champions League in parts of five seasons. He’s got the best name of any Union player ever (apologies to Stefani Miglioranzi and Veljko Paunovic on that front). And he just turned 30 in May. When we talk about hype, the future is a consideration. Mondragon had just enough professionalism in the tank to still stop shots well into his 40s. Kleberson was near the end of his rope. Barnetta could have several quality years ahead of him. 

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