"We did it."
Those were Luis Barraza's first words to his family after the win against CF Montréal. A crazy summer evening had seen the 24-year-old secure his first professional win, first clean sheet, and first assist in just ninety minutes.
As the hustle and bustle of a rowdy locker room enveloped him, he FaceTimed those that mattered most to share the joy and sense of accomplishment.
Barraza's journey to New York City FC, from a small town near the border between Mexico and the United States, starts in a backyard, with, in his words: 'all imagination.'
"I call it a backyard, but it wasn't really backyard," he explained. "It was like a long outdoor hallway between our house and our neighbor's house. Our houses over there were literally next to each other. It was like a little stretch that expanded to a little space in the back of our house. It was all concrete, so I wasn't really diving for anything."
His dream of being a goalkeeper was nurtured further through the television. A childhood fan of Mexican side Pumas, club legend Sergio Bernal was an early inspiration, alongside the likes of Oswaldo Sanchez and Guillermo Ochoa. Those stolen moments would help build an unconscious understanding of how to be a goalkeeper, but his early forays into youth soccer did not begin between the posts.
"I started playing club soccer around the age of eight," he said. "I tried out just as a field player and they put me at center-back from eight-years-old up until I was 11 or 12-years-old. For three or four years I played outfield so I was always able to manage the ball with my feet. When I was 12-years-old, that's when I joined a club team in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and I was like, 'Listen, I want to be a goalkeeper' and the coach there gave me the opportunity."
That environment helped Barraza develop his game, but it would not last forever. Several teammates opted to join Real Salt Lake's academy, and as high school approached, the team disbanded, leaving Barraza in an awkward position.
"I quickly realized if I want to get better at this, I can't be doing this [playing at this level]," he said. "So not even a month into my first sophomore semester, my mom called up Freddy Juarez. He used to be my club coach in Las Cruces and had gone over to the RSL Academy. She called him, left him emails - so many emails - until he replied, and he was like, 'Listen, bring him to trial'."
Granted a chance to impress, Barraza and his mother made the five-hour drive from their home in Las Cruces, New Mexico to RSL's academy in Casa Grande, Arizona.
"I think I played a lot of Temple Run [on my phone]," he said, laughing when asked how he killed time during the journey in the family minivan.
Barraza was told the club already had several goalkeepers, and hopes weren't high as he and his mother embarked on the return journey. Their strategizing continued down the highway; perhaps they could come back in December and try again. That's when the call came through.
"They were like listen, can you bring Luis on Monday, we really liked what we saw, and we want you to bring him over," he said. "So then my mom pulls the car over and just starts crying because she knew how much I wanted it."
The shot-stopper's academy team would prove to be a successful one. They won trophies, but they also produced several first-team players for RSL including, Justen Glad, Brooks Lennon, Aaron Herrera.
Unfortunately, no such offer was forthcoming for Barraza. He admits that disappointment stayed with him for some time, even after securing a place at Marquette University.
While he can now look back fondly on his time as a Golden Eagle, that period was not without its challenges, least of all the climate.
"I was used to really hot weather," he explained. "But I had never gone through a whole season where temperatures drop below 30 degrees Fahrenheit. There was a game I think my last year in college where we're playing Creighton, at Creighton, and it's 15-20 degrees Fahrenheit, and I'm just like, how can anyone play like this. That was the main thing, I thought if I can play at RSL Academy in 115-degree weather and this, then I can play anywhere."
His start with NYCFC would be in significantly warmer climes. Selected 12th overall in the 2019 MLS SuperDraft, Barraza has vivid memories of the day spent with his father. After some modest celebrations that evening, he was keen to get to work.
"My first sessions were actually in Abu Dhabi," he said, laughing. "After I got drafted, the team admin comes up to me, he's like, 'Can we get your passport?' And I was like, 'Why?'. He's like 'Because we're doing preseason in Abu Dhabi'. I said, 'I've never been out of the U.S. or Mexico, what am I gonna do halfway across the world?'."
The warm weather provided some familiarity, but Barraza's first two seasons with the team were mainly about patience. While game-time was limited, that hasn't stopped him from improving, thanks to the hard work of assistant coach Rob Vartughian.
"He's been honest when I'm doing good, but also when I wasn't doing really well my first year," Barraza said. "He would be like, 'Listen, you need to do this better, you need to work on that and work on this,'. Even when I did something right, he was like we got to do it again and repeat that until it becomes second nature. His honesty and his high standards, have really put me in a great position to really, to push myself and to become the greatest player I can be."
That work, done away from the spotlight, prepared Barraza to step in last December for his debut against Tigres in the CONCACAF Champions League. A chastening evening, it only galvanized his desire to earn more minutes with NYCFC, and when Sean Johnson was selected by the United States Men's National Team for the Gold Cup, the 24-year-old was ready to step in.
Back-to-back defeats to start his run of games was not ideal, but a midweek meeting with CF Montréal not only boosted the goalkeeper's confidence but also remind fans why the club selected him.
"That pass was 100% intentional," he said of his assist for the game-winning goal. "I was actually kind of happy that the microphone picked up on me calling Ismael Tajouri-Shradi because now people are like, wow, you actually meant it."
The full-time whistle brought with it a raw release of emotion and a hug with teammate Anton Tinnerholm.
"It was not just the three years here, it was my time at RSL, it was my struggles at Marquette, and then my learning here at New York all wrapped into that moment, because that was my first professional win," he said. "So, when that was over, it was just, you know, pure joy."
Barraza is keen to acknowledge the role his family has played in helping him realize that dream. His mother, father, and sister Daniela have celebrated the highs and comforted him during the lows.
Thankfully, his second win and second professional clean sheet for NYCFC would come days later in an empathic 5-0 win against Orlando City SC. An exhilarating evening at Yankee Stadium; it was a different kind of test for the goalkeeper. He had fewer shots to save, but that meant a greater need for concentration and focus.
With games coming thick and fast, there's little time to dwell on things, but Barraza's intentions remain the same – to keep playing, to earn more wins, and keep making his family proud.