COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – It’s 60 seconds into the first official league game at Weidner Field, the new 8,000-seat home of Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC, and history is about to happen.
Austin Dewing has lifted a pass over the high defensive line set by New Mexico United for teammate Hadji Barry. A straggling defender has kept the Guinean forward onside as he bears down on goal, controlling with three touches as he arrives at the top-left corner of the penalty area.
A look up, a shot to the far corner, the brand-new net ripples, and the crowd is on its feet, cheering wildly.
Even now, you can hear the smile in Barry’s voice as he describes what he was feeling.
“For me to get that first goal in that stadium really meant a lot,” he said recently. “That’s something that can never be written off, that’s part of history, so I was really happy with that.”
Photo courtesy Isaiah J. Downing / Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC
“Before our first game, we were all excited to really play in front of our fans,” said Barry. “I know the fans were excited to be in that type of atmosphere watching this new kind of club, a new era in Colorado Springs, and we just wanted to play here and give a whole lot of excitement for the fans and show them that this is a new chapter we’re starting here.”
This time a year ago, things were looking decidedly less rosy. In a difficult season affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, nothing seemed to quite get going for Barry at North Carolina FC – then part of the USL Championship – as he recorded only one goal and one assist in just over 1,000 minutes of action, the next step for the former All-League selection was key.
Enter Switchbacks Head Coach Brendan Burke.
Himself a newcomer to the club after the offseason resignation of Alan Koch, Burke was familiar with former player and current agent Damani Ralph, of whom Barry is a client. Barry had seen good things on the field from Burke’s teams at the Philadelphia Union II – especially the 2018 squad that featured current United States Men’s National Team players Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie which reached the Eastern Conference Semifinals of that year's postseason – and was intrigued.
As it turned out, the two were an ideal match.
“I knew the past few years hadn’t been great in terms of success on the field, but just talking to Brendan and the type of guy he was behind the coach really attracted me, I wanted to work with him,” said Barry. “I had heard a lot of good things, too, from former players that had played for him and even my agent, Damani, he said really good things about him, so I was ready to take that new chapter.”
There was more, too. The new stadium and a refreshed brand had brought the Switchbacks to a new audience in downtown, and other new arrivals prior to Barry like Michee Ngalina had given an idea of the team Colorado Springs wanted to be now.
“That all attracted me to really coming here and starting a new journey,” he said.
With 25 goals in the 2021 USL Championship regular season, Hadji Barry equaled the league's single-season scoring record. | Photo courtesy Isaiah J. Downing / Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC
Life is good right now for Barry.
The 28-year-old from Conakry is the 2021 USL Championship MVP and Golden Boot winner with a single season record-equaling 25 goals, and his performances and those of his teammates – whom he’s always quick to compliment as he talks about his own year – carried the Switchbacks into the 2021 USL Championship Playoffs, presented by TwinSpires, for the first time in five seasons.
It’s a new era, and Barry is leading the way on the field.
The road in professional soccer is rarely a straight one. There are twists and turns, ups and downs, and players – especially when they reach the professional level – must be able to manage those things.
For Barry, the expectations were high immediately. A First Round selection in the 2016 MLS SuperDraft by Orlando City SC, which had worked with him through the organization’s USL League Two club the prior summer before he completed his career at the nearby University of Central Florida, Barry spent time spent on loan in the Championship at Orlando City B for two seasons, but the breakthrough for the Lions never quite arrived.
“For me personally, I’m a player with confidence. The more confidence I have and the more belief I know the coach has in me and my teammates have in me, it boosts me a little extra gear to really go out there and be myself and try to be as successful as I can be for my teammates,” said Barry. “In Orlando, things didn’t really work out with the MLS team. They didn’t really give a lot of playing time so that killed my confidence. Even when I went on the field, you’re just trying to rush things and want that goal or whatever it is and you’re not being yourself out there.”
I’m a player with confidence. The more confidence I have and the more belief I know the coach has in me and my teammates have in me, it boosts me a little extra gear to really go out there and be myself and try to be as successful as I can be for my teammates.
Voted the Championship's Most Valuable Player this season, Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC's Hadji Barry is ready to lead his side to new heights in the future. | Photo courtesy Isaiah J. Downing / Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC
Barry found a new spot in 2018 with Sporting Kansas City II, and suddenly things clicked into place. He scored 19 goals across the regular season and playoffs to earn Championship All-League Second Team honors. That opened doors overseas for a stint in Israel, and then at two more Championship clubs where the chemistry just wasn’t quite what he’d found in Kansas City.
As Barry’s confidence fluctuated when the goals didn’t arrive consistently, so did his game.
“The pressure builds on, and for me a lot of it became so much,” he said. “Whenever I go out there, my whole mentality is not just to score goals but to win games, and I want to do the littlest things possible to help my team win games. Of course, I do want to score as a forward – that’s why you’re known, that’s what we’re getting paid to do – and when you go one, two, three, four games without scoring you start thinking about it a lot more, and you get away from the littlest things you have to do on the field.”
That was then, and this is now. As Barry notes, it’s a lot easier to do when you are finding the net consistently, but after 2020’s low he reset his own expectations for what he can and should accomplish when he steps on the field as he headed to Colorado Springs.
I’m a forward, I’m going to miss chances, I’m not going to score every chance that I get, and the best thing I can do is move onto the next play. I knew with the team we had here, especially early on in the season, we would get chances, so if I sit there and dwell on the last chance, the next chance will come without me even knowing. I just try to move onto the next play, get up on my feet and try to be positive, the next one will come.
“I said to myself before coming into the season, ‘I’m a forward, I’m going to miss chances, I’m not going to score every chance that I get, and the best thing I can do is move onto the next play,’” said Barry. “I knew with the team we had here, especially early on in the season, we would get chances, so if I sit there and dwell on the last chance, the next chance will come without me even knowing. I just try to move onto the next play, get up on my feet and try to be positive, the next one will come.”
It’s the Switchbacks’ final home game of the regular season, and Weidner Field is tense.
It’s still scoreless deep in stoppage time against Rio Grande Valley FC, which to this point has held the potent home attack and Barry to a scant few chances at goal.
Then, suddenly, a turnover near the halfway line sends the ball to the club’s marquee attraction, the one the Switchbacks signed to a new contract through the 2023 season midway through the year. Barry controls to take the ball past a potential challenger, and quickly diverts a pass centrally from the right to teammate Thomas Amang.
One touch to control and bang, the ball is in the bottom-left corner of the net, and the crowd is going wild.
Three days later, the Switchbacks have their postseason berth confirmed.
It’s been quite a year. Not only did Barry equal the league’s single-season scoring record of 25 goals held by Cameron Lancaster of Louisville City FC, he also made a run at his own record of eight consecutive games with a goal, finding the net 10 times in seven games early in the campaign. Later in the season, there was another run of six goals in five games, a sign of how good Barry can be when at the top of his game.
With 25 goals in the 2021 USL Championship regular season, Hadji Barry is closing in on joining the league's all-time leaders as he enters the 2022 season. | Photo courtesy Isaiah J. Downing / Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC
I’m a player that can catch fire. Once I get one goal, two goals, I felt like it would mostly keep coming. I don’t really go into a season thinking I want to beat my record of eight consecutive games, but this year once I got to six, of course my loved ones, close friends are always going to mention it.
“I’m a player that can catch fire,” he said. “Once I get one goal, two goals, I felt like it would mostly keep coming. I don’t really go into a season thinking I want to beat my record of eight consecutive games, but this year once I got to six, of course my loved ones, close friends are always going to mention it. ‘Hey, this is a record you can break, who else is capable of that, maybe it’s you?’ and then you start thinking about it, but I don’t use that as my main goal going into a game. If I score, OK. If I don’t, my main objective is to help my team win games, and if I don’t score I’m happy with that as long as we win.”
Photo courtesy Isaiah J. Downing / Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC
But now, there’s a greater peace than when he was younger as his new outlook – aided by more than 60 regular season goals in the Championship for his career – has helped him stay on a more level path.
“That I can score a lot of goals!” he laughs when asked about what he’s learned about himself this year before becoming more serious. “I’ve learned that I’m a player with confidence. If I’m out there on the field with little or no worries and just being myself, believing in myself, and knowing that the coaching staff does believe in me and my teammates, I can be the best player I can be. That’s what I’ve learned this year, anything is possible, you just need to be full of confidence on that pitch.”
For Barry and the Switchbacks, it’s a season that finished in the Western Conference Quarterfinals of the 2021 USL Championship Playoffs as they fell to eventual champions, Orange County SC. However, looking at how the season ended does not tarnish the future for Barry.
“I came into the season really wanting to kind of find a home where I can settle down for a couple of years and try to make a legacy in the organization, which is Colorado Springs now,” he said. “I’m really happy for the next few years to be part of this organization and we’ll see what the future holds.”
The No Limitations, Only Opportunities series aims to spotlight members of the USL community who embody perseverance and belief in their potential. USL partner Bellevue University is committed to empowering motivated students to achieve their own personal dream.