No MLS club has spent more to land a single player than Atlanta United did to sign 18-year-old rising star Ezequiel Barco, but he's taking the distinction in stride as he takes his next career step.
If you’re somewhat familiar with the young, albeit impressive career of Ezequiel Barco, Atlanta United’s new diminutive attacking midfielder from Santa Fe, Argentina, then you've realized a few things already.
For starters, when you watch him play, it’s difficult to believe he is only 18. Take, for example, last year’s Copa Sudamericana title decider between his old club, Independiente, and Flamengo. After beating the Brazilian team 2-1 at home in the first leg, Independiente faced the daunting task of holding on to the lead at the famed Maracanã, in front of a hostile crowd. In any other scenario, this would already be a tense situation, but for Argentinians, given the nation’s long-standing rivalry with Brazil, it becomes even more nerve-wracking.
Barco, however, saw it as an opportunity and one he seized victoriously.
“It was a beautiful experience, and something I always dreamed of,” Barco said. “To be able to be win and become a champion gave me so much happiness.”
His penalty opened the scoring, and by the end, it was enough to secure a 3-2 aggregate victory, marking Independiente’s second Copa Sudamericana title. Barco’s overall performance was marked with so much poise, leadership and maturity, it was difficult to believe it came from a teenager.
Perhaps this is why he appears so relaxed when discussing his move to the United States. When asked if he feels any pressure coming into a new league, especially since becoming the most expensive signing in the history of MLS after commanding a $15 million transfer fee, Barco, at least for now, seems unfazed.
“I really don’t feel any pressure,” he says calmly. “I’m just really eager to come in and keep growing as a player with Atlanta, get stuck in and get some minutes and have a good year.”
To those who know his journey and understand the climate of South American competition, this response may not be too surprising. Barco, after all, is coming from one of the most competitive leagues in Latin America, and after earning a permanent role in the first team at 17, he ended his career with Independiente with eight goals in 57 appearances. His five assists and 59 chances created were the most in Argentina's top flight since he debuted in August 2016. He was also the team’s main penalty taker, illustrating how much faith his ex-coach Ariel Holan had in him.
Pressure, to Barco, is nothing new.
“He left as a champion from Independiente and he was playing in a very competitive league, so I don’t think there is any pressure at all,” Atlanta's previous record signing, Miguel Almiron, told the club's official website.
MLS is just another step in his young career and the unique opportunity for him to learn under one of the most celebrated Argentinian managers in world football, Atlanta's Gerardo "Tata" Martino.
“It’s an honor to play under someone like Tata Martino," Barco said. "We all know his reputation with Argentina, with Barcelona, and for him to be Atlanta United’s coach really calms me as he now becomes part of my development and my future. I can learn so much from him.”
Barco is an extremely talented dribbler who loves to have the ball at his feet. When he takes players on, it seems as if the ball is somehow connected to his cleat and there may be occasions during the season where he’ll flash brief glimpses of another Argentine player who did the same thing under Martino at Barcelona and continues to dazzle to this day.
Now, let’s be clear. This is not to say that Barco will one day come remotely close the same heights as the great Lionel Messi–that’s ludicrous to even contemplate. But his skill set is good enough to suggest that they share some similar traits.
How he fits in Atlanta’s fast-paced system and Martino’s strategy will be intriguing, especially with the arrival of Darlington Nagbe from Portland. Last season, Martino’s squad usually adopted a three-headed monster behind main striker Josef Martinez, but with these arrivals and Yamil Asad returning to Argentina after a loan from Velez Sarsfield, we could see Barco playing various roles.
Barco can play on the wing, but perhaps Martino envisions a support striker or No. 10 role, allowing more freedom for Almirón (similar to how Philippe Coutinho played with Liverpool) and more help for Martinez.
“In terms of where I’ll play, nothing has been discussed as I just arrived,” he said. “And I haven’t had a chance to properly speak to [Martino], but we’ll talk more where I feel comfortable and where Tata sees me.”
As for the future and life after Atlanta? Naturally, it’s too early to tell, but Barco has big dreams and even bigger objectives when it comes to club and country.
“An obvious objective is to one day play for your country," said Barco, who has played for Argentina's U-20 national team. "It would be an honor and hopefully one day I will get that chance to play and get the call up. As for Europe, first I want to have a great year here with Atlanta, improve as a player and then we’ll see my plans for the future. For now, the goal is to focus here in Atlanta and give it my all.”
Throughout the entire conversation, Barco remains calm, composed and focused with what’s ahead and it’s clear that the young talent understands what it means to enter Atlanta United, a club that despite being so young has such high expectations of itself. Consequently, Barco is looking forward to playing in front of Atlanta’s record-breaking attendance.
“It’s going to be beautiful,” he says speaking of the atmosphere. “My new teammates have already told me about the tremendous fan base and how they’re always singing. It’s going to great to play like that.”
Time will tell how Barco will adjust to MLS, but his arrival continues a trend that signifies the value clubs like Atlanta see in South American talent, as he follows Diego Rossi's arrival at LAFC, Jesus Medina's at NYCFC and Josue Colman's at Orlando City. And it’s this trend that only strengthens the reputation of everyone involved.
“This transfer further demonstrates the commitment of our club to bring top level, dynamic young players to Atlanta and to MLS. We are excited to welcome Ezequiel to our club and our city,” Atlanta United president Darren Eales said upon the signing. “Securing a player of Ezequiel’s caliber is another significant moment in Atlanta United history."