“A Dream Come True” – ACF Torino’s Diana Barrera plays in the CONCACAF tournament

Guatemala National Team player Diana Barrera on the pitch at her former high school in Kensington, MD.

Guatemala National Team player Diana Barrera on the pitch at her former high school in Kensington, MD.

One of the great joys of following lower-level women’s soccer as I do is when a player you’ve known breaks through to a much higher level: Watching Ali Krieger go from a promising teenager in an exhibition match with what’s left of the professional Washington Freedom to the W-League Freedom to one of the best defenders on the planet. Keeping up with Lori Lindsey for years as she toiled in the shadows as captain of the Washington Freedom Reserves, eventually breaking through to get national team callups and become a key player for her WPS team. Seeing Becky Sauerbrunn go from playing for the Reserves to likewise becoming one of the best defenders in the world.

And this year there’s Diana Barrera. I’ve known her for some time as a forward for the Maryland Capitols/ACF Torino of the Women’s Premier Soccer League, a team I’ve followed for the last three years. (You can find an interview I did with her in 2012 on YouTube here.) Last Monday, though, she took to the field at RFK for World Cup qualifying as part of the Guatemalan national team.

“I can’t believe I’m here,” she said when asked what it felt like. “I’m usually the one in the stands cheering for DC United. But to be able to walk underground, go into the locker rooms…. [“Where Mia Hamm and Julie Foudy have been,” I offer.] Yep, they’ve all been there. And even after our game walking past the United States, it was another good feeling. It was awesome.”

She gets a plug in the Washington Post

She gets a plug in the Washington Post. (Elise Bender)

She comes by her appreciation of RFK Stadium honestly, as a local soccer fan and player. Born and raised in Wheaton, MD, she started playing in Montgomery County recreational leagues when she was five. She moved on up through the various levels: MSI, MSE, WAGS.

At Einstein High School, where we recorded this interview, she excelled, being named team MVP and team captain three years out of four. She was named first team all-county by the Wheaton Gazette and Montgomery County Journal, and was a Washington Post All-Met honorable mention.

“It was a great four years. The people in my year were pretty good players as well, so we had a good four years. I’d like to point out the coach [Joan Rackey], who’s a great coach. She’s always been behind me 100%. She continues to be the coach, so I’ve had the opportunity to help her out as well.” (Barrera spent some time over the summer helping out with Titan practices.)

She graduated from Einstein in 2005 and headed to the University at Albany, which she described as a “very competitive Division I school.” The school went through a rebuilding phase, changing coaches her sophomore year, so the team had mixed success. Barrera was named team captain her senior year and has three entries in the Great Danes’ all-time record book: tied for sixth for goals in a season, tied for third for assists in a season, and also tied for third for career assists.

She joined the Thunder Soccer Club’s Maryland Pride, a WPSL team, in the summer of 2008 and played for them for several years. When they folded, she and many of the players joined the newly-formed Maryland Capitols WPSL team in the summer of 2012, which is how I became familiar with her.

Also, after graduating from Albany in 2009 with a major in information studies, she kept involved in soccer with local WASA and CCSL teams.

Barrera takes the field against the US.

Barrera takes the field against the US.

Then last year everything changed. “Last year I had the opportunity to play in an international tournament. Me and a couple of girls that I played soccer with on a couple of different teams, we just got together and went down and played in this tournament.”

“Sounds like an international pickup match,” I said.

“Yeah, pretty much. It’s something they have every year.”

Down in El Salvador, they played against “Guatemala, a team from LA, Honduras, and a couple of Salvadoran local teams. And that’s where the coach saw me. He spoke with my coach and realized I had some ties to being Guatemalan, so we got in contact. It took about six months to process papers. And then in March was when they called me to come down and train with them.” (Her father is from Guatemala.)

I asked how much trouble it was to assimilate with the team given the difference in backgrounds. “At first, it was a little difficult just because the type of play is a lot different from the type of play here in the United States. So the first couple of weeks were a little shaky. But once I started practicing with them – we practiced almost every day – I started to gel with them and things started to work out.”

The language barrier wasn’t much of a problem, either. “I understand more Spanish than I speak, but I speak enough that I could communicate with the other girls. I mean, soccer is the world’s game. It’s very easy to understand. There are simple gestures that are known worldwide. It’s fairly easy to communicate.”

She spent three months with the team in training, then was thrown almost directly into the UNCAF (Central American Football Union) qualifying tournament. “We had one friendly with El Salvador. The other ones were with a local women’s league in Guatemala, a couple of their teams. And then we jumped right into the tournament.”

It was a similar format to the CONCACAF tournament that’s finishing up this weekend: two groups with the winners from each group qualifying for the next round. “It was hosted in Guatemala. We came on top in our group, and in the other group it was Costa Rica.” Barrera led Guatemala in scoring with three goals. “It was the first time I’d played internationally. Just to have the opportunity to play, it was a great feeling.”

The result earned Costa Rica and Guatemala slots in the CONCACAF tournament, which began on October 15 in Kansas City. And Barrera started the opening match. “It was a dream come true to basically play at a professional level in a big tournament like the CONCACAF tournament. I wish our result was better than what it was, but our communication wasn’t [great], and our heads were in a different place.”

Barrera faces up against Sauerbrunn in the second group match. (Associated Press)

Barrera faces up against Sauerbrunn in the second group match. (Associated Press)

And then two days later the team faced the United States in Chicago. Barrera was subbed on in the 77th minute and had to face up against the likes of Becky Sauerbrunn. “I only played ten minutes, but those ten minutes were definitely an experience. Obviously the United States, they’re a great team. So when I was in there it was very competitive. I could feel the intensity.”

Three days after that was the homecoming to RFK. Barrera didn’t take the field until the 87th minute but got an enthusiastic reception from the home crowd when she did. “It really touched my heart to hear all those people who were out there for me, how much support I have around here in the area. I wish I could have played more for everybody. I wish I could have showed myself a little bit more for the people who came out and supported me. But that’s the coach’s decision. But it was just a heartwarming feeling to hear everybody and to see everybody that was out there.”

Greeting the ACF Torino contingent after the match

Greeting the ACF Torino contingent after the match. (Elise Bender)

The feeling is mutual. “We are so proud!” said Torino teammate Elise Bender, who was at RFK to cheer Barrera on along with team president Mario Repole and several other players.

Always good to have your own supporters group (Elise Bender)

Always good to have your own supporters group. (Elise Bender)

She doesn’t know what sort of future she has with Guatemala, just that she remains ready. “I’m going to keep going until my legs can’t give any more. Any opportunity I have to play, I’m definitely going to go out and play.”

“If you love the sport of soccer and you want to continue to play, keep fighting for it. Any opportunity you get to play, take that chance. Believe in yourself. Things can happen if you really put your mind to it.”

Signing autographs at RFK. (Elise Bender)

Signing autographs at RFK. (Elise Bender)

The full interview on which this article is based is available here.

See also Einstein graduate takes on the world, by Jennifer Beekman for the Montgomery Gazette.

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