Barcelona, which started its preseason training on Wednesday, arrives in the USA next week for three games, beginning with a July 22 match against Juventus in New Jersey. That will be Barcelona’s first game with new coach Ernesto Valverde in charge. Who?
Indeed, Valverde isn’t well known outside of Spain, where he most recently coached Athletic Bilbao for four seasons after stints with Valencia, Villarreal and Espanyol, before starting out at Athletic Bilbao, where he had spent the bulk of his playing career.
And in Spain, “You will never hear a bad word said about Ernesto Valverde,” wrote longtime Spanish coach Pako Ayestaran in The Independent -- a refrain that is often heard about the 53-year-old who also coached Greece’s Olympiacos in 2010-12.
Barcelona appointed Valverde to replace Luis Enrique, who announced last March that his third season would be his last.
Valverde does have a Barcelona connection. His 14-year-playing career included two seasons at Camp Nou, arriving the same season Johan Cruyff became its coach.
"It was kind of a revolution, a lot of new players, and above all because Cruyff came," Valverde said. "It was a new way of playing. I remember it perfectly. It was the first step of everything that would come after."
Valverde got limited playing time, scoring eight goals in 22 La Liga games but was part of the Barcelona squad that won the 1989 UEFA Cup Winners Cup and 1990 Copa del Rey.
“I’ve always maintained relationships with people here,” said Valverde, who in 2015 guided Athletic Bilbao to its first trophy in 31 years with a 5-1 aggregate win over Barcelona.
In 2014, he qualified Athletic Bilbao for the UEFA Champions League for the first time in 16 years.
He coached Espanyol, La Liga’s other Barcelona-based club, to a runner-up finish in the 2007 UEFA Cup final. At Olimpiacos, he won three Greek league titles and two league cups.
Under Enrique, Barcelona won two La Liga titles and one Champions League title, but won neither last season. Valverde, who signed a two-year contract, will be expected to win at least one of them.
“I’d love to win both of them,” he said.
Decade of Barcelona Coaches
2014-17 Luis Enrique: 2 La Liga, 1 Champions League, 3 Copa del Rey, 1 Club World Cup
2013-14 Gerardo Martino: no major titles
2012-13 Tito Vilanova: 1 La Liga
2008-2012 Pep Guardiola: 3 La Liga, 2 Champions League, 2 Copa del Rey, 2 Club World Cup
Veteran Barcelona defender Gerard Pique says winning isn't enough.
"Our philosophy is not only to win, but win playing well," Pique said. "We have players for that and it's what we try to do every game. This is a show, and people go to enjoy it. It's not about just winning 1-0 and playing defensively the whole game."
During his spell at Espanyol, Cruyff praised Valverde’s approach:
"His work is more than excellent. If you watch Espanyol play it's good to watch … trying to play in a way people can enjoy, because that's what soccer's for."
When Valencia hired Valverde, Cruyff said: "It's a great selection by Valencia. When he was a player he was very intelligent and he always showed me his interest in soccer and learning. He's one of the most outstanding and promising coaches in Spanish soccer."
Cruyff, who also coached Pep Guardiola at Barcelona, died last year. But his influence at Barcelona lives on.