Atlanta United still looking for that Barco spark

As his manager and teammates sang his praises Tuesday, on a TV 20 feet away Ezequiel Barco was doing the things for Argentina’s U20 World Cup team that Atlanta United has been missing since he left five games ago.

In the first few minutes of a group-stage game against Portugal, Barco made a long run down the middle of the field. A few seconds later he won a free kick in a dangerous scoring area. A few minutes later he maintained possession to break Portugal’s pressure. That was after scoring two goals, including a fabulous volley, in Argentina’s 5-2 win its opening game May 25.

Atlanta United has had a difficult time replacing what Barco brought to the team in the season’s first eight MLS games. Since he left to join his national team for the tournament in Poland, Atlanta United is 3-2, but has scored only three goals in its past four. It has lost two consecutive and will once again try to find a player that can spark the offense as Barco did when it hosts Minnesota United on Wednesday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Barco has four goals and one assist for Atlanta United this season.

“We can talk about it, but it doesn’t help,” manager Frank de Boer said of Barco’s absence. “He was a lot of times involved in goals. Now he’s doing it with the national team. We will do with the players we have. We have enough quality.”

The big question, if Barco continues to play well with Argentina, and it seems like he is going to get at least two more chances with one more group-stage game against South Korea on Friday followed by at least one game in the knockout round June 2, 3 or 4, is will he even return to Atlanta United? The World Cup championship is June 15.

De Boer half-joked that hopefully Barco isn’t sold in July. The transfer window for leagues in Europe already is open.

“This tournament, every scout from every big club is there,” de Boer said. “If you look into the stands, 50 percent will be scouts.”

De Boer said his nephew is a scout for AZ Alkmaar, which finished fourth in the Dutch first division. He and another scout from the club were at Argentina’s first game. After Barco’s two goals, the second of which was a one-timed volley into the opposite corner, they graded him an “A.”

“If he does well and makes this kind of goal, I know a lot of clubs will look to him,” de Boer said.

Barco’s Atlanta United’s teammates were following the game against South Africa while on their plane ride back from Salt Lake on Saturday. Franco Escobar called Barco’s second goal a “golazo.”

“Surprising, but at the time it’s not,” Escobar said. “Because everyone knows his quality.”

If Barco continues to play well for Argentina, or with the club when he returns, and if Atlanta United receives an acceptable offer, it will be another piece of good business accomplished.

President Darren Eales and Carlos Bocanegra have said many times they want to buy young, inexpensive talent, help that talent develop, and then sell that player for profit as long as the situation is good for the player, Atlanta United and MLS.

The first big sale was Miguel Almiron, who was bought for a reported $9 million from Lanus in Argentina before the 2017, was an MVP candidate his first two seasons in MLS, and then sold to Newcastle in January for a fee that could reach as much as $27 million, according to reports.

Barco was purchased by Atlanta United from Independiente for a reported $15 million, at the time the biggest transfer in MLS history.

“Hopefully he goes not halfway into the season,” de Boer said. “But we can be proud we developed a player like Barco.”