Ezequiel Barco won’t play for Atlanta United. What happened?

Atlanta United midfielder Ezequiel Barco (8) reacts after scoring a goal off of a free kick during the first half against D.C. United at Mercedes Benz Stadium Saturday, September 18, 2021 in Atlanta, Ga.. JASON GETZ FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

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Atlanta United midfielder Ezequiel Barco (8) reacts after scoring a goal off of a free kick during the first half against D.C. United at Mercedes Benz Stadium Saturday, September 18, 2021 in Atlanta, Ga.. JASON GETZ FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

The young player was to be a cornerstone, but he never reached the level

Ezequiel Barco was going to be Atlanta United’s next big asset.

Their next big marketable star. One who was going to torch MLS defenses and then be sold for tens of millions of dollars to a Champions League-level club in Europe.

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Sometimes, soccer doesn’t care.

Barco appears on the verge of being loaned to a club in Argentina. But, this wasn’t the plan.

What happened?

To recap: Atlanta United purchased Barco, then 18, from Independiente in Argentina before the 2018 season for an MLS-record $15 million. It took months of negotiations. Barco finally had to get personally involved. That was how motivated he was to join the Five Stripes. His arrival became almost a game on social media, highlighted by the hashtag #Barcowatch.

“He’s probably the biggest signing not just for us, but for the league,” then manager Gerardo Martino said. “It makes sense that people are talking about that.”

Barco was considered one of the bright young stars in South America. He made 38 appearances for Independiente, scoring five goals, including one in the finals of the Copa Sudamericana tournament.

Jet-lagged, Barco joined Atlanta United in January at training camp.

“I just want to do everything I can to enjoy it and be a champion with Atlanta,” he said.

To make the transfer work and be roster compliant, Atlanta United bought down the contract of Hector Villalba.

The challenge for Martino became where to play Barco. It’s an issue that six managers have tried to figure out. If you’re optimistic, you can say that current manager Gonzalo Pineda has come closest. If you’re pessimistic, you can say that perhaps Barco doesn’t have a best position.

That first season Barco posted four goals and three assists in 26 appearances. It wasn’t a bad start for a player adjusting to a new country, new league, new team, new teammates. But the season will be remembered more for Barco’s alleged indiscretion with a teammate’s girlfriend that resulted in Martino suspending him and subsequently dropping him from the starting lineup.

Barco’s sophomore season was much like the first: four goals and three assists in 15 appearances. It seemed like as soon as Barco would show flashes of his potential, he would sustain an injury or get called up by one of Argentina’s youth national teams.

Still, you could see why Atlanta United, and others, wanted him. He could hit a good pass. He could hit a good free kick. He liked to run at defenders. But his decision-making was sometimes questionable.

But he was young. He was going to get exponentially better the more he played.

COVID-19 wiped out most of 2020. Barco finished with two goals and three assists. With Josef Martinez out for most of the season, it was Barco’s chance to show that he could lead the team. It missed the playoffs for the first time. Barco shouldn’t be blamed for that. A team without a striker is a team that is going to have a hard time winning. But it did show that Barco may be more of a complimentary player than one who can consistently impact results.

Last season started with Barco in April saying it was going to be important for the team and himself to fulfill his goal of playing in Europe.

He also seemed ready to apply lessons learned from his first three seasons.

“Whether things are going well or going badly, you have to keep learning through all of it,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot these past three years. I’m happy at the moment.”

It would be Barco’s best season with career highs for starts (23), goals (seven) and assists (eight). Those brought his career totals with the club to 17 goals and 17 assists in 81 appearances. Villalba, the player whose contract was brought down to add Barco and who eventually was sold because he was losing playing time to Barco, had 21 goals and 24 assists in 82 appearances.

That’s been the biggest issue with Barco: He does a lot of things well but isn’t great at one thing, other than drawing fouls.

He appears to be a player who could end up being very good. Right now, he’s just good. A good dribbler. A good shooter. A good passer. Good on defense, which wasn’t the case when he arrived.

Barco has worked hard to improve.

He has improved.

It’s just not been enough.

That’s not all his fault.

Six different managers. Six different systems. Injuries. Bad luck.

Barco could end up tearing it up in Argentina.

The transfer market, currently depressed because of the pandemic, could bounce back. Atlanta United could end up selling Barco and recouping its investment. If it can’t or doesn’t, it wouldn’t be the first time a team took an expensive gamble that didn’t pay off.

That’s not what most thought would happen.

Again, soccer doesn’t care.

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