After an extended wait, Ezequiel Barco is finally ready to contribute for Atlanta United.
The Argentinian Designated Player made his long-awaited debut on Sunday, coming on to play the last 20 minutes of Atlanta United’s 2-2 draw with NYCFC. Barco’s first MLS appearance was a highly anticipated one, as the league record $15 million signing finally took the field after a preseason quad strain took him out of action for the first month of the season.
Not fully fit, there were obvious signs of rust for Barco on Sunday, but the Argentinian star certainly showed glimpses of how he’ll fit into the Atlanta United attack. Regularly floating all throughout the midfield, Barco completed ten of his 16 passes while firing one shot in his cameo.
“I think that he looked good,” said Atlanta United coach Tata Martino. “Physically, I thought he looked fine. He was dynamic. I think that he was missing a little bit in his precision and when he came on we went to four midfielders and we had (Darlington) Nagbe and Jeff (Larentowicz) playing inside with Barco on the right and Miguel (Almirón) on the left.”
“It was a tough first game to come back to but my teammates helped me feel comfortable on the field,” Barco said. “Luckily, I was able to get some playing time with them today.”
The key over the next few weeks will be finding that chemistry. Atlanta Untied has a variety of attacking options, and fitting Barco in with them will be a storyline to watch.
Should Atlanta United stick with the 4-3-3 they played most of last year, Barco has an obvious spot. He can play on the left, as was always intended, with Josef Martinez up top, Miguel Almiron central and Hector Villalba on the right. Julian Gressel, who filled in on the wing in Barco’s absence, becomes a valuable utility man capable of starting or coming off the bench in a number of positions.
On Sunday, though, and on several occasions throughout the young season, Atlanta has deployed a 3-5-2 that has looked solid. With Villalba and Martinez up front and Almiron just behind, there’s no natural position for Barco. Greg Garza has held down the left wing-back role, and it remains to be seen exactly what the 19-year-old Barco can bring defensively at this point in his career.
Regardless of how Barco is deployed, expect Atlanta to keep that continued attacking freedom that has defined the team thus far.
“I feel good playing with Ezequiel,” Almiron said. “When he starts to play more and gets more confident, he’s going to be even better.
“We don’t have any problems with (switching positions),” he added. “We’re comfortable on the field. Coach gives us the freedom to do that and has confidence in us and then we work it out on the field.”
Barco’s next run out will also be a must-watch, as Atlanta heads to Los Angeles to take on Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the Galaxy. It will be a clash of two of the league’s most dangerous attacks, one which gets even a bit more exciting now that Atlanta is fully healthy.
In that game and the games to come, Barco will need to find his place with the current group and, when/if he does, Atlanta United appears to have another star ready to step in and contribute towards a push towards elite status.
“He’s dangerous,” Nagbe said. “I think when he steps on the field he’s a guy who draws attention and he’s going to go to the end line and try to make a play and we need that from him.”
“I am glad he did get some minutes today,” Garza added. “and hopefully, we can get him in more minutes as well and get him that starting job here in a bit.”