Atlanta United’s Ezequiel Barco has one goal and one assist in his past nine games.
Is he in a slump? Is the weight of the $15 million price tag weighing him down? Does the criticism on social media and from analysts on mlssoccer.com matter?
The answer to those questions, according to manager Gerardo Martino, is no.
“I understand that in the U.S. there’s a big influence of statistics in sports,” Martino said. “Not saying it’s bad. For me, in the last game we played, Barco was the best player on the field.”
Though Barco didn’t score for the third consecutive game and didn’t register an assist for the fifth consecutive, he did create a team-high five chances, played key final passes and did well on set-pieces, according to Martino.
The 19-year old has four goals and one assist in 16 league appearances this season. He is tied for 12th in terms of chances created, with 39 in his 16 appearances. Federico Higuain of Columbus has the most, with 67 in 20 games.
The player Barco took over for, Yamil Asad, and the one he’s compared to by Atlanta United supporters, has eight goals and three assists in 15 appearances this season for D.C. United, which the Five Stripes will host on Saturday at Mercedes-Benz. Some supporters have asked why the team didn’t simply keep Asad instead of buying Barco. It wasn’t that simple. The team did try to buy Asad, who was on loan last season from Velez Sarsfield in Argentina. Asad wouldn’t agree to the terms being offered, so Atlanta United sold his MLS rights to D.C. United.
Barco has shown technical ability that rivals Miguel Almiron’s, a passing touch that rivals Darlington Nagbe’s and an understanding of movement that rivals Josef Martinez’s.
He just doesn’t have the stats.
Martino said after the game against Seattle that the team needs to put more players into the box to take advantage of crosses. Barco has put a few across goal this season with no one there to tap them in.
Barco gets into shooting positions near the top of the penalty box, about 18-20 yards from goal, but then declines to cut loose and shoot.
Martino said that Barco constantly looks to shoot, but is often facing two defenders who are shadowing him. That’s something that Martino said Barco didn’t have to deal with in Independiente in Argentina. Barco is tied for second in MLS in terms of fouls suffered with 49.
“He has to do what he was able to do in Argentina, which is to get around those one or two guys who are marking him,” Martino said.
MLS analyst Bobby Warshaw, on “Mass Confrontation” show posted this week, said he thinks that when Nagbe returns from his injury, Barco will be the odd man out in Atlanta United’s 11. He said that Barco hasn’t played as well as Julian Gressel, and that he believes Hector Villalba works better with Almiron and Martinez. He believes that with incessant rumors swirling about Almiron’s future, the club may have a small window to win the MLS Cup. That may necessitate moving Barco out of the line up with Villalba on the left of Almiron, Gressel on the right, and Martinez as the striker.
“We know we are in a business,” goalkeeper Brad Guzan said. “If, all of a sudden, I’m not making saves, if the team’s not getting clean sheets, the defense is getting questioned. If Miguel goes four games without scoring he’s getting questions. Josef’s the same.
“It’s the standard that we’ve set for ourselves at this club in terms of quality we want to set day in and day out. The quality we bring to games, to match day to atmosphere, the fan experience, the results. Everything that we are doing here. All of a sudden, if you are not producing at the normal level that we’ve set as our bar, that’s when you guys start asking questions.”
Gressel said he doesn’t know why people are criticizing Barco.
“If you were in his shoes, it would be hard to do your job, to live up to hose expectations,” he said. “You buy at that price tag, there are a lot of prospects. He has a really high ceiling, which is what I think Atlanta United paid for, I think. Sticking to his game and getting better within the team, he will get better as he goes.”