Luis Barraza was surprised when New York City FC chose him in the first round of the MLS SuperDraft.
“It was a little bit unexpected,” the Santa Teresa, N.M., native said.
Yet his selection – the 12th choice overall – was the result of an evaluation that began four years ago during Barraza’s freshman season at Marquette University.
Khaled El Ahmad is the North America and Concacaf scouting manager for City Football Group, which owns NYCFC – he also played for current Marquette coach Louis Bennett at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and later assisted Bennett at Marquette in 2006-07.
“Khaled saw him as a freshman and said he was going to trace him and see how he does,” Bennett told Pro Soccer USA. “When Luis first came in we were rebuilding the team so he was getting shelled. We played Villanova in his freshman year and Khaled put him in his book after that game.”
El Ahmad and the NYCFC technical staff continued to monitor the progress of the 2018 Big East Goalkeeper of the Year.
“Khaled knew what was going on with us here – we were rebuilding,” Bennett said. “This last season he could see it was all coming together. What Luis was working on came to fruition. He became a lot better with his decision-making.”
After a slow start, the Blue and Gold won four of their last five games of the regular season and advanced to the Big East Championship game – made possible by the exploits of Barraza, who saved four penalties in a pair of shootouts against Xavier (quarterfinals) and Creighton (semifinals).
“I think that garnished more interest,” Bennett said. “Then he went to the (MLS) Combine and he played ok the first day.”
“My first game I didn’t really feel comfortable,” Barraza told Pro Soccer USA after conceding a near-post finish in the opening match. “I knew after that first game I had to show well the next two sessions. I turned the juice up.”
And while LAFC and FC Cincinnati had expressed a strong desire to acquire the Real Salt Lake Academy product, it was the Bronx side that traded up seven spots to assure that the fourth keeper in their senior team stable was the 6-2 Barraza.
His initial face-to-face interaction with the New York City staff came only the day before the draft – an appointment with goalkeeper coach, Rob Vartughian.
“I was at the combine in Florida and had conversations with teams, but never with New York City FC,” said Barraza who won the U15/16 U.S. Soccer Development Academy National Championship with Real Salt Lake in 2013.
As a teen, Barraza dreamed of trotting onto the pitch at Rio Tinto in Sandy, Utah.
“You play for the Academy so one day your dream is to play for the first team (at RSL),” Barraza said. “So I was a big, big fan.”
Current RSL first team assistant coach, Freddy Juarez, was responsible for beckoning Barraza to the RSL Academy. Juarez was the former Academy Director and previously coached the New Mexico Strikers in Las Cruces where he met Barraza.
“When I was 8 years old no coach wanted to put me in the goal – they said I was a better center back than goalie so I just started to play defense,” Barraza said. “I met Freddy when I was nine. I ended up playing goalkeeper when I was 12.”
An invitation to the RSL Academy ensued, although it was not without persistence from a young man who graduated from his university in seven semesters to ensure his availability for the draft and 2019 MLS season.
“When Freddy moved from New Mexico to the Academy in Arizona, I remember sending him thousands of emails to just get me a tryout out there which he eventually did,” Barraza said. “And they got me.”
The extended minutes as an outfield player when he was young and the consistent footwork required led to a comfort level on the ball and a pronounced interest from teams who build their attack through the goalkeeper.
“They (RSL) were really, really strict on that,” said Barraza who moved from Las Cruces to the Academy along with RSL Homegrown signee, Aaron Herrera. “They wanted us to play out of the back and connect passes from of the back to go forward. I think that’s where I really forged that skill set to try to connect with my defenders out of the back.”
“We really focused on ball possession and controlling the flow of the game and that started with the goalkeeper,” Juarez told Pro Soccer USA. “If he was going to hit a long ball it was an educated long ball.”
His experience with Juarez led Barraza to a program like Marquette whose style equates with that of the RSL Academy – and Barraza’s new team in New York City.
“We clearly play with the goalkeeper out of the back – like a sweeper keeper sometimes,” the 13-year Marquette coach said. “As soon as the numbers are not good he has to recognize it so that he can bypass as many pressing numbers as possible that’s one thing he does pretty well.”
The scouting report also suggests that Barraza is an excellent shot stopper while possessing the athletic ability to explode and fly to reach any shot.
However, it’s the ability to deliver a pass left-footed or right and with equal pace and power that elevated the rookie to strong consideration in the top tier.
“The special thing about me is that I feel comfortable with the ball at my feet and I can play,” Barraza said. “I took after Marc-André ter Stegen from Barcelona so I try to mimic him. Perhaps you can experience that from me.”
New York City will accept a facsimile of the German international.
“What better place to go now than to go to one of the best coaches whose been around that philosophy for years,” said Juarez in reference to City head coach Dome Torrent – the 11-year assistant to Pep Guardiola. “Now he’s going to learn even more of the tactical part of when, how and why they should play out of the back. I think it’s going to be a great learning environment.”
Regardless of his athleticism, technical ability and tactical awareness, Juarez identified the most vital trait exhibited by Barraza.
“You listen to a lot of the interviews that the MLS coaches had at the combine and it’s culture, culture – we want to make sure we bring in the right people,” Juarez said. “When you speak about Luis Barraza – he’s that kind of guy. He’s that type of character which is hard to get. When you interview any player they always seem great up until you have them and they see a little adversity and you see their true colors. Luis is that guy that’s a constant professional – a positive professional and more importantly a good teammate.”
The enduring relationship between a NYCFC scout and his former collegiate coach may have produced a gem for the boys in blue.