2021 fall All-Area boys' soccer Player of the Year: Barkley destined for greatness on pitch – Champaign/Urbana News-Gazette

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Updated: December 17, 2021 @ 11:50 am

College/Prep Sports Reporter
URBANA — Noah Barkley is measured when discussing his own soccer prowess.
Asked to describe when he first noticed he could be a good player, Barkley cuts himself off mid-response to say: “I don’t know how to answer that question, really, because I don’t want to sound arrogant.”
Perhaps Barkley’s high school soccer coach at Urbana has some thoughts about the senior midfielder’s abilities.
“The way he plays the game, it’s very different than a lot of other players,” said James Barkley, also Noah’s father. “It’s actually very fun to watch. There’s a sort of grace to his game, a little bit like dancing.”
Noah’s last dance at the prep level is one he and his dad should remember for years to come. The 2021 fall All-Area boys’ soccer Player of the Year didn’t boast the most gaudy stat line, finishing with eight goals and 12 assists in 22 matches. But Noah dictated play all over the field for the 19-1-2 Tigers, constantly slowing opponents’ offensive pushes and deftly moving the ball into and through opposing defenses.
Noah was on the pitch for every big moment in an Urbana season that finished one win shy of a Class 2A state semifinals appearance. His role went beyond the most basic numbers as the Tigers won 19 of their first 21 matches and didn’t suffer a loss in regulation.
“They would’ve been excellent,” James said when asked how the Urbana boys’ soccer program would have looked without Noah.
“But when you have someone that consistently will change the game in the middle of the field in a team sport like this, it’s really hard to replace that. There’s no doubt about that.”
Noah is able to acknowledge this, as well. At least in general terms.
“The entire game is controlled by the midfield. … That’s where a lot of high school teams will put their best player or players,” Noah said. “So, for me, being able to play in the midfield and have that effect on the game — even though it didn’t really help my stats a ton — was great because it allowed our team to win a lot more than we probably would’ve if I would’ve played any other positions.”
Taking an early likingThe phrase “like father, like son” certainly applies to the Barkleys when soccer is concerned.
James helped Urbana boys’ soccer to a state tournament quarterfinal appearance in 1991 under a one-class system after competing in the city’s park district and Little Illini (now Illinois Futbol Club) programs.
With that experience, plus time spent playing at Knox College and with Iowa State’s club team, James was likely to pass on soccer to Noah at one point or another.
It didn’t take long.
“The day he pulled up on the couch to walk, there was a soccer ball right there, and I put it in front of his feet and he dribbled the ball down the couch,” James said. “That was the beginning. So he literally has been kicking a ball since he could stand up on his own.”
Noah retains numerous soccer memories from his younger years. James is involved with many of them.
“At our first house, in our backyard we had a wood deck, and so he would set up a mini soccer goal and we’d kind of just play back there,” Noah said. “I was pretty young, like 3 or 4 maybe. Then he was also the coach of my first soccer teams.”
Noah also is a swimmer at Urbana, but soccer is far and away his No. 1 sport.
“I’m not sure it was my choice,” Noah said. “(My dad) started me with a soccer ball from so young, and I never really did other sports. I was better at soccer than everything else, and I liked being really good at what I was doing.”
A different dynamicJames recognized one specific element of Noah’s early game that suggested Noah would “be good enough to have fun” with soccer.
“He could do things with the ball at his feet and look up at the same time, which is pretty rare at a young age,” James said. “With that I thought, something interesting is probably going to happen.”
Noah credits his father for getting him on the fast track to soccer stardom.
“He was the main person that gave me 1-to-1 coaching for a lot of years when I was younger, which helped me then be ahead of the curve going into more competitive games,” Noah said. “He had me work on not only one foot. He made me make sure I was working on both feet when I practiced. So that definitely helped as I got older because everyone who plays soccer can use one foot, but it’s a lot harder for people to develop both feet.”
Another reason Noah is especially dangerous in the midfield is because it’s a space he’s roamed all throughout his soccer career.
“Since I started club, I think I’ve played center-mid, which would’ve been … when I was 8 years old,” Noah said. “I played forward a little bit. Never really played defense. But I played center-mid mostly for all those years.”
Noah’s high school soccer success always will exist in the Tigers’ record books. But there’s more to Noah’s soccer history than just his Urbana career.
“When things started to really look like the possibility for more elite-level play probably came at some of those select-level clubs,” James said. “He’s had some things that he’s done at the club level that have been interesting. He scored two goals against the number one-ranked team in Canada … when they were in the U15 age group at the USA Cup.”
James couldn’t continue coaching Noah once Noah moved on from Sharkey’s Fall Soccer and Urbana Park District soccer into Illinois Futbol Club action. But an interesting opportunity opened up just before Noah was set to enter high school. Randy Blackman, the only coach Tigers boys’ soccer ever had known, retired following the 2017 season.
“It seemed like the timing was right,” James said. “I thought … I could do the program justice. I knew the kids coming in, as well as some of the kids who were already here.”
Noah has seen his soccer relationship with James as a “father-son” dynamic, even when James is his coach. But he still wasn’t entirely sure how that would look in the high school realm.
“I thought it might be a little weird, a little awkward,” Noah said. “But it ended up being pretty good.”
Developing into a starNoah was primarily a junior varsity athlete and varsity bench member as a Tigers freshman in 2018. That changed in 2019 as Noah settled into a starting role he’d hold for three consecutive seasons.
“There comes a point when there’s no question (and) everybody’s 100 percent who should be on the field and how good they are,” James said. “I’ve loved watching him play, and I’ve loved watching the success.”
Urbana put together modest 10-5-2 record in Noah’s sophomore year. Then the Tigers really started displaying their potential in the condensed 2020-21 campaign, in which they finished 10-2-3 and collected a victory over Big 12 Conference powerhouse Peoria Notre Dame.
Both Noah and James credit offseason work for the team’s rise. And not only efforts in which players had a ball at their feet.
“We did strength and speed training. … We had one of the track coaches (Forrest Farokhi) come and help us with speed training in the summer, and that helps us develop physically,” Noah said. “We already knew we were a technically strong, solid team.”
James more easily witnessed Noah’s improvements in this regard by virtue of spending more time with his son than any of the other Tigers.
“His growth as a player has been a lot of his physical growth,” James said. “His speed really increased, and his strength and his ability in the air really rounded out a complete game.”
This season’s Urbana team won its first eight matches — including an 11-10 penalty kicks thriller with rival Champaign Central in the Tigers’ own tournament. Urbana and Central then played to a 3-all draw before the Tigers rattled off seven more consecutive victories and ended the regular season with a draw versus Peoria Notre Dame.
All the while, the Barkleys didn’t place too great an emphasis on their familial bond. Their primary concern was making the most of a promising season.
“I’ve probably actually coached Noah a lot less in high school than most of the other high school players, just because he already knows,” James said. “He knows everything I’m thinking, what I would say and what I wouldn’t. It’s pretty much just a look here and there.”
“Having my dad with me through it all was pretty cool, but it wasn’t a main focus for me,” Noah added. “It was cool being able to go home and talk about the games and what he saw from the sidelines … but I think what was more important to me was being with my friends throughout the whole thing.”
Noah offers a unique perspective on the Tigers’ five-match postseason run, as well.
Yes, he was hopeful to lead Urbana back to a state semifinal for the first time since 2012. And the Tigers nearly accomplished that feat, winning regional and sectional championships before falling to Triad in penalty kicks after a scoreless 100 minutes of super-sectional play. But, for as much as Noah cared about Urbana’s successes and failures, he wasn’t willing to treat the season as life or death.
“It added a little bit of pressure when we got to the postseason, but overall it was just a fun time,” he said. “I want to play at the next level, and high school soccer isn’t the main way to be seen by coaches. … I think the main focus was more on enjoying it and spending time with my friends and, of course, trying to win.
“But it didn’t have a lot of bearing on my future, so I was kind of just along for the ride. I really enjoyed playing high school soccer.”
James thoroughly enjoyed being part of Noah’s prep tenure, as well. It’s a topic Dad approaches with a “saying a lot without saying much” approach, as the emotions tied to it are evident.
“One of the joys of my life,” James said.
Noah isn’t 100 percent set on a specific college yet. He wants to study aviation and is looking for a school at which he can do that and try to help another soccer team to great heights.
“It was a really great thing to be able to make my way through the (Urbana) program,” Noah said. “It was great that we actually did continue to improve and made ourselves into a really strong team.”
Colin Likas is the preps coordinator at The News-Gazette. He can be reached at clikas@news-gazette.com, or on Twitter at @clikasNG.
Urbana vs. Champaign Central in the Class 2A Regional boys soccer championship at Urbana High School on Friday, Oct. 22, 2021.
College/Prep Sports Reporter
Colin Likas covers Illinois football and high school sports at The News-Gazette. His email is clikas@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@clikasNG).
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