Ezequiel Barco's unlimited potential is huge plus for MLS, Atlanta United
It took longer than anticipated to finalise, but at last Atlanta United have got their man: Ezequiel Barco's record signing is a huge coup for both the club and Major League Soccer, and it comes at a crucial time in the player's development.
So what kind of player did Atlanta secure in Barco?
Perhaps the only real negative with Barco is that he's the sort of player who encourages the use of some rather tired cliches. He's a short, tricky playmaker from Argentina with a great talent for retaining possession of the ball in the face of tough defensive challenges and an impressive eye for a pass. Sounds familiar, doesn't it?
Barco was born and raised in Villa Gobernador Galvez, part of Greater Rosario, but moved at age 15 to Avellaneda, in Greater Buenos Aires, to join the youth system of Independiente (one of Argentina's "Big Five"). When he joined, the club had just finished fourth in the half-season championship, which marked their return to the top flight after a traumatic season in the second tier, their first in more than a century. They finished fifth in the yearlong 2015 championship, but even with the established stars doing so well, Barco was one of the youngsters elevated to the first team in mid-2016, just a year and a half after joining the club.
His talent was evident right away. Barco played frequently as Independiente started the 2016-17 season well, and in a team that was conservatively set up by manager Gabriel Milito, he often looked like the player most likely to provide a spark of creativity. Respectable though the team's initial results were, Barco's runs and tricks were, frankly, the main motivation for watching for the neutral observer.
Yet at the same time, there was something unpolished about his play. Probably owing partly to his youth and partly to the pressure put on him by being the main creative fulcrum almost right from the start, he was, as Independiente fan and football journalist Peter Coates put it, "guilty of trying to do too much, with the team idly watching."
The end of 2016 proved a vital turning point for both Barco and Independiente. After elimination from the Copa Sudamericana at the hands of Chapecoense and a slump in domestic results, Milito left the club and was replaced by Ariel Holan, a former field hockey coach whose move into football had earned plaudits due to the enterprising way his Defensa y Justicia side played.
Holan seemed to identify two main problems regarding Barco: first, that the team weren't forward-thinking enough as a collective to get the best out of him, and second, that he faced too much pressure for such a young player. Barco became a fixture on the subs' bench at the start of 2017 but his importance to the team was underlined in April, when Independiente rejected an offer for him from Portuguese giants Benfica.
Barco was reintroduced to Holan's starting lineup on a regular basis after only a few months and was put out on the left wing. In an interview uploaded to YouTube in July, Barco said, "At first I didn't like the change in position, I thought it wasn't for me, but with time I found my way into it ... and, thank god, it's a role I can play well."
He certainly seems to enjoy the extra space in wide positions. His assists have increased in frequency, his crossing has improved and, crucially, he's been part of a trident of attacking midfielders who are mobile and capable of covering for one another, allowing him to switch to a more central role at times during matches while Martin Benitez goes wide. Most importantly, his willingness to knuckle down and learn a new role speaks volumes for his improvement as a team player.
As Coates put it, "I think how Barco came on during 2017 was intrinsically linked to how Holan's Independiente came on. He was far more of an individual when he first came into the side, but on the left in Holan's system he was able to express himself within a framework that brought out the best in both himself and the team."
Tellingly, at the age of just 18, he also became the team's first-choice penalty taker. He'd missed a spot-kick against Lanus on the last day of the 2016-17 season, which cost the side Copa Libertadores 2018 qualification, but such was Holan's faith in him that he remained first-choice in the new campaign.
In December, Independiente visited Flamengo in the Maracana in the second leg of the Copa Sudamericana final (the region's second-tier continental cup). Six minutes before the break, with the aggregate score at 2-2, Independiente won a penalty and the youngster stepped up to take it. The pressure was enormous, but his finish was unerring. Hard, low and away from the goalkeeper's dive, Barco's on-the-night equaliser turned out to be the tie's winning goal.
With the Sudamericana title came qualification for this year's Libertadores; not only had he put that miss against Lanus behind him, but a Barco penalty had sent Independiente into South America's most prestigious competition after all, and with a trophy to show for it.
As it was, the goal was the cherry on top of the cake as Barco put in a superb all-around performance in what would prove to be his last match for Independiente. In the second half in particular, Flamengo were unable to get the ball off him. He'd saved arguably the best performance of his nascent career for the biggest game.
It's that last point that really makes Barco an exciting prospect because it demonstrates Atlanta's directors aren't being hyperbolic when they say they don't know what Barco's ceiling could be. Ezequiel Barco may or may not be in MLS for the long haul, but whichever club or clubs he plays at in the years ahead should be very happy indeed to have him.
Sam Kelly is based in Buenos Aires and has been one of ESPNFC's South America correspondents since 2008. Twitter: @HEGS_com