When newly-signed Dash midfielder Bárbara Olivieri arrived at Shell Energy Stadium two months ago, the memory of her childhood experience at the downtown venue came rushing back. Olivieri, who grew up in Katy, just west of Houston, remembers “coming to a Dash exhibition game with my parents in 2014, when I was in sixth grade!”
That 2014 preseason game fueled her futbol aspirations. Before that, “I didn’t really think that women’s soccer existed other than in college. So I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh! It’s women playing and having their league in a big stadium.’ Seeing the Dash at a formative age was a huge motivator for me.”
From Katy-zuela to Venezuela
Olivieri started playing soccer at age 3. “I basically played all the sports you can think of [but] I always stuck with soccer because I had the most fun with that,” she says. Her parents did not push her to become an elite athlete. “They put me in soccer because I had so much energy! They were like, ‘she needs to just play something so she can calm down’ — that’s how it started.”
“My parents came in 1996 or 1997 to Katy. At that point I don’t think there were that many Venezuelans,” Olivieri explains. “Now, it’s all you find! They even call it ‘Katy-zuela.’ At this point in Katy and in Houston I feel there is a lot of Venezuelan culture. It’s cool to see.”
Olivieri’s path to playing for the Venezuela national team started with local youth clubs — first Texas United and then Albion Hurricanes. “That’s how I got seen” by colleges and youth national teams, Olivieri says. And it certainly didn’t hurt that her Tompkins High School team went to the Texas state finals twice. With opportunities in both the U.S. and Venezuelan youth systems, Olivieri ultimately chose to follow her heritage.
“I got the call to go to a Venezuelan U-17 World Cup qualifier. At that point I made the decision to just go with them. I’d never been to the country, so I was like, ‘I really want to go and see the culture that my parents are from’ … I don’t regret it at all.” Olivieri is optimistic about the national team’s development. “I think we’re growing exponentially, so I see good things in the future.”
Freshman of the Year
Just like her grandfather, Olivieri decided to enroll at Texas A&M. Her freshman season in fall 2020 was condensed a bit due to Covid-19, but the midfielder still made an immediate impact for the Aggies. She was named SEC Freshman of the Year after leading the team in scoring, with 8 goals and 5 assists in 16 games, and also helped A&M reach the NCAA quarterfinals. She continued her offensive output as a sophomore, netting another 5 goals and 3 assists in 12 appearances.
Texas A&M Associate Head Coach Phil Stephenson describes Olivieri as “a delight to have on the team … she just wanted to play soccer all the time. Just wanted the ball on her foot.” Olivieri’s best friend Kate Colvin (who played with the Dash Developmental Academy) also played for the Aggies, and Stephenson notes that the pair would “Go at it on the field like cats & dogs, but then pick each other up, dust each other off and do it again. They made their teammates try harder.”
In addition to her work ethic, Olivieri is known for exceptional goal-scoring abilities. As Stephenson said, “I have never coached a player who dips a ball as well as Barb.” Case in point:
South of the Border
After her sophomore season, at the stage when many college students consider a study abroad, Olivieri decided to go abroad as a professional soccer player. Being bilingual, she was attracted to Club de Fútbol Monterrey in Liga MX.
“I thought, ‘Okay, so I’m moving to Mexico. I’s going to be a whole different thing because I lived my whole life here [in the Houston area], but I know how to speak Spanish. It won’t be that much of a culture shock.’ But you get there, and you realize that Venezuelan lingo and Mexican lingo are completely different!” she laughs.
Olivieri naturally bonded with other players from the U.S. “There were about six who were American-raised as well. So we spoke English together, and a lot of the girls knew English. So it wasn’t completely Spanish; I kind of had both languages.”
Olivieri spent two seasons with Monterrey (spring and fall 2022), helping the club reach the semifinals of the Liguilla (playoffs) in each season. But when the opportunity arose to sign with her hometown team, the goal-scorer’s first thought was “Absolutely!”
Houston Dash teammate María Sánchez likewise spent time in Liga MX, playing for Rayadas’ main rival, UANL Tigres. “We’re teammates now so we can joke around about it. It’s pretty cool to share the field with somebody who was at some point was my rival.”
The most recent women’s Clásico between Tigres and Rayadas ended in a 1-1 draw. Sánchez’s prediction of a 2-0 Tigres win did not play out; Olivieri resisted making any wager on the Rayadas. “We’re at the top of the table. That’s all I’ll say.”
At Home in Houston
“I definitely feel way more myself here … I feel happier and just able to express my game, so far, in the preseason that we’ve had.” Olivieri describes her game as “always getting the ball back. If I lose it, just get it back and keep going. Work for the entire game, and do not let stuff affect me.”
“I really feel like I have the most fun when I’m creative.” To get to that point in Houston, “it’s just getting to know the players, getting to know your back line, your forwards, and all that,” she explains. “Once you all get on the same page, it all flows.”
In two months of preseason, Olivieri has made a good impression on new Dash head coach Sam Laity. “Barb has shown flashes of brilliance. She has a lot of qualities — she’s a good human being, she’s a hard worker, she’s talented, she’s creative,” he said. “Barb is a very exciting young player.”
Coming of Age
Olivieri’s childhood vision of playing soccer at the highest level is just beginning to unfold. “I’ve never missed a season since I was 3 years old,” she declared. “I remember a yearbook I did in elementary school, and I literally wrote, ‘I want to go to Texas A&M and I want to be a professional soccer player.’ ”
She became so invested in soccer that her younger brother Alan soured on the sport. “I honestly feel bad because we would have to get up at 6 am for games. He would come in the stroller, and was always around soccer. I think I kind of ruined it for him,” she admits. “He’s a baseball player.” But he has followed and supported his older sister on her ascent to the professional level, especially now that she will play for her hometown club.
Returning to the recently upgraded and rechristened Shell Energy Stadium and seeing herself in a Dash jersey for the introductory photo shoot felt “pretty surreal, and it was really special to take my family,” she beamed.
A knee injury kept her out of the lineup for the first two games of the NWSL season, but Laity described her potential as “enormous,” and expects her to contribute on the field “in the short and medium term.” The injury also kept Olivieri from joining Venezuela’s roster for the Vinotinto’s upcoming friendlies vs. Argentina.
If Dash fans are lucky, perhaps Olivieri will be able to make an appearance in the exhibition next Tuesday vs. the Mexican national team at Shell Energy Stadium. After that, the next Dash home game is set for Wednesday, April 19, when the team will face Kansas City in the club’s first Challenge Cup match of the year.