PHILADELPHIA — The MLS Draft was winding down on Friday when Atlanta United made a move that turned heads. In fact, it was the biggest move of the day.
No, it was not a selection in the second round nor was it a blockbuster trade. Rather, it was the official announcement of the acquisition of Ezequiel Barco.
The drawn out courtship of Barco came to a positive end for Atlanta United on Friday afternoon, as the club announced during the draft that it had signed the talented Argentine as a Young Designated Player. Barco, 18, joined via a transfer from Independiente in his native country, and he bolsters an already-stacked attacking unit that includes Miguel Almiron, Josef Martinez, and Hector Villalba.
“It was the hardest deal I’ve done and I’ve done some pretty tough ones in my time. Unbelievably difficult,” said Atlanta United president Darren Eales. “It was difficult because we thought we had reached agreements and goalposts kept moving. Look, I get it. If I’m on the other side, I want to fight for a player like this. I respect Independiente. They negotiated hard and tough, but in the end we got a win-win deal here.
“They got what they wanted, but more importantly Atlanta United got an absolute top talent coming to the league with 18 years of age with his whole future ahead of him.”
Eales added that the reported MLS record transfer fee of $15 million that Atlanta paid Independiente for Barco was not accurate, but that it was in the same ballpark.
Regardless of the exact figure, Barco’s arrival gives Atlanta United’s high-flying attack another dangerous weapon with which to terrorize and punish defenses. Barco is a versatile and crafty attacker with a good bit of experience for his age, and is fresh off of helping Independiente win the Copa Sudamericana.
“He’s an attacking midfielder that can play on the right and left as well as he can play behind the No. 9,” said Atlanta United head coach Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino in Spanish. “He is very good on the dribble and very inventive with the ball at his feet and very vertical in his play. He’s a player that, for being just 18 years old, has a lot of courage to constantly ask for the ball and to go into the Maracana and play in a final the way he did.
“Just how I would say last year that we brought over one of the three best players or the best player from the Argentine Superliga with Miguel, I could probably say the same now.”
The praise for the teenager that the club had been tracking since last summer did not stop there.
“We’re talking about a top, top talent,” said Eales. “He is a player who has played over 70 times in the top league in Argentine and he’s only 18 years of old. If you look at the Copa Sudamericana that Independiente won, he had big balls to go and take that penalty. He’s away from home in one of the most iconic stadiums in the world, and he’s prepared to take that penalty and cooly slots it away.”
With all the hype will come expectations, however. Barco is essentially replacing fellow Argentine Yamil Asad in Atlanta United’s starting lineup, and Asad proved plenty productive during the team’s expansion season last year. The 23-year-old outside midfielder scored seven goals and assisted on 13 more in 32 appearances.
Some might view the move as a risk or gamble given Asad’s solid production in his debut MLS campaign, but Atlanta United is confident that Barco will deliver and make good on his.
“We wanted Yamil to stay with us because he had transformed into a fundamental player for us,” said Martino. “Regardless of Yamil staying with us or not, we still would have attempted to sign Ezequiel. It would have created an interesting competition within the team, but I anticipate Ezequiel to bring more experience and quality to what Atlanta United already has.”
The addition of Barco creates one issue for Atlanta, as it now has four DP players on the roster. MLS rules only allow three per team, and Almiron, Martinez, and Villalba are currently on those type of deals.
The club will have to use allocation money to get one of their salary cap hits under the DP threshold in order to keep that trio and Barco, but Atlanta United technical director and vice president Carlos Bocanegra did not seem overly concerned about being roster compliant by the March 1 deadline.
Instead, he, like the rest of Atlanta, was just basking the glow of finally getting their man.
“He feels this is the place for him and he was willing to give things up to come here,” said Bocanegra. “We’re proud of our club that we can facilitate something like that, but I think it speaks volumes for the league, where we’re going now, that a top player in South America chooses to come to MLS.”