In the continual growth of the NPSL, no name associated with it may be as noticeable as former England international and current Fox Sport soccer analyst Warren Barton.
Barton has been heavily involved with the San Diego Flash, a member of the NPSL’s Southwest Conference, since the club’s reinvention in 2010. Much of the infatuation he has with the club has been due to the culture of soccer in the area, but Barton has always known that California is a special place.
“I had the opportunity to come work in the U.S.,” Barton recollected of his relationship with the area. “I had soccer camps and had a lot of vacation here with my family, so after I retired in 2006, I came to the States in 2008 to work for the Galaxy.”
The Los Angeles Galaxy called on Barton’s services in 2008 to be their U-18 coach until he got involved with the Flash.
The London native especially loved the added perks living in Southern California.
“To be honest, the area of San Diego, the lifestyle, and the climate were very appealing. I knew over that last decade that the game in America was growing, the sport was going to take off and I wanted to be a part of this excitement. It’s been great and I thoroughly enjoy it.”
With a firm admiration for the area, Barton’s love of the game naturally brought him to the Flash, after the team returned to business after a short stint (1998-2001) in the now defunct A-League.
“There were two points that excited me; first was that San Diego itself and Southern California is a huge soccer community, even for the World Cup it is most viewed there and most have knowledge about the game there and the talent is there as well,” Barton explained. “Secondly, there is more opportunity for the young players to go through to the next level after college and go forward. The NPSL is a very unique and fantastic league for the players.”
As the current General Manager of the Flash (and coach from 2010 through 2012), Barton aided the Flash into finishing second in the Southern Conference of the West Region last year. Even though that success has been welcomed, the Flash has been consistently on or near the top of their conference since joining the NPSL. The Flash has won their conference the last two out of three years.
While Barton has enjoyed the soccer side of the business, he has also seen the benefits of being a member of the NPSL.
“It is nice that the league helped the San Diego Flash get a foundation,” Barton added.” Any good franchise needs that, as San Diego had a team many, many years ago, but it really didn’t take off. But for me, starting with the San Diego Flash and the NPSL was a great opportunity.”
If the NPSL was looking for veteran players to help their clubs progress and be a model franchise, Barton could be the example they are looking for. With 450 appearances to his credit in his career, including a seven-year stint with Newcastle United and being capped by the England national team, the Flash’s GM has seen why the fourth tier of the U.S. system has a great partner with the National Premier Soccer League.
“I think the tendencies of these clubs are to get the best for their players in the NPSL,” Barton explained. “You can’t go straight from college to pro level, sometimes you have to take a step backwards to go forwards. When you look at the opportunities of the facilities, the players, the coaches, it helps a player to go forward.”
Since the league prides itself on the progression on its players (and players like Chris Klute and Patrick Mullins making a splash in MLS), Barton sees the development of its players a major goal.
“It gives them (the players) that extra chance to go forward. It’s all about progression and development and that’s what I think this league does. More importantly, when we talk to Jürgen Klinsmann about the younger U.S. players, he’s excited (they have been) given the opportunity.”
But what gives the NPSL the advantage of other major sports in the United States is that the community is heavily involved, much like it is across the pond.
“In Europe, when you have a team in a village they are supported by all the people in that small town, soccer is no different here, as you look at San Diego, people come for vacation and stay to live here, they love their soccer and when they have a local team to support, the local businesses get behind them and they have a player whose family is in the community,” Barton noted. “I think that’s very important, that you have an affinity with your area. That’s something very unique about the league and something we are obviously trying to do.”
However, the NPSL has a heads up on Europe when it comes to the lower leagues.
“I think now more than ever we have young players bridging the gap. For the community, it’s a great place for community players and that’s what we’ve been big on in San Diego, we just don’t want players travelling in for the season, we want the local players and give them that opportunity.”
With the growth of the NPSL, it seems that there is a clear correlation between the league and the state of U.S. soccer in general. Since its explosion between 2006 and today, the league has moved from 20 something teams to today’s growing number in the 80s. In that time, U.S. Soccer has reached the Round of 16 in the FIFA World Cup and has made themselves known in the world of soccer.
“Looking at the game, it has helped the NPSL grow, the game is growing into all areas as where baseball and football are the predominant sports and you are getting (soccer) teams coming along. Also, you look at David Beckham and MLS in Miami and a team going to Orlando, I think the game is growing in all corners in the United States.”
And with the growing of the game in the United States, soccer is competing with the other major players in the country.
“I think the MLS is growing,” Barton would continue, “I would call Thierry Henry, Tim Cahill, Landon Donovan, Jermaine Defoe top international players, so when you talk about the likes of Michael Bradley coming back, you have to realize that this is probably the only country in the world that you’re competing with four other major sports.”
“In England, its soccer and maybe rugby and cricket, but they don’t even compare. When you talk about the National Football League, a major sport like Major League Baseball, a major sport like National Basketball Association and you add the National Hockey League, this is a unique country where you are against four major sports and not too many other countries can sustain that.”
With that opposition, soccer has done a great job of nudging itself into the media and markets that were prevalent with the other major sports for the past fifty years.
That push has been due to people like Warren Barton and his involvement in teaching others about the game. That includes a relationship with the Army National Guard to produce a set of clinics that will focus on the development of players.
“With Shannon MacMillion (a former member of the US Women’s National Team and player on the San Diego Spirit of the Women’s United Soccer Association), which everybody knows in the world of football in Del Mar with the Sharks, it’s a great program that we’re involved with and also Billy Garton, who played with Manchester United,” Barton said of the clinic. “We’re trying to work with the coaches and develop teams. It’s not just not about All-Star teams, it’s about giving kids the opportunity to play, whether that’s recreational soccer or competitive soccer, that’s something I’m involved with in my local community.”
There is no doubt that Barton has become the face of the San Diego soccer community, but it’s always refreshing to see him on the Fox Sports network breaking down the biggest matches in the world, including the UEFA Champions League. The knowledge of the game has certainly been a strong attribute for the British commentator. But for him, the key to success has been easy.
“Clent (Alexander) and I have worked hard behind the scenes and the community deserves a great team, that’s why we’ve had a very successful four years.”