Atlanta United’s Barco says he is in good place mentally

Atlanta United midfielder Ezequiel Barco (8) runs during the first half of a friendly match against Birmingham Legion FC Sunday, March 28, 2021, at BBVA Field in Birmingham, Ala. (Jacob Gonzalez/Atlanta United)
Atlanta United midfielder Ezequiel Barco (8) runs during the first half of a friendly match against Birmingham Legion FC Sunday, March 28, 2021, at BBVA Field in Birmingham, Ala. (Jacob Gonzalez/Atlanta United)

Credit: Atlanta United

Credit: Atlanta United

Said this year is “fundamental” for him to achieve goal of one day playing in Europe

Three years ago, an admittedly tired and jet-lagged Ezequiel Barco, in the U.S. for less than 24 hours at that point, sat and spoke with a journalist at the hotel where Atlanta United was staying during its preseason camp in Florida.

Barco, then 18 years old, was the most expensive transfer in MLS history with a reported price tag of $15 million. The Five Stripes beat out reported interest from clubs in Europe to secure what was expected to be a game-changing player.

Then-manager Gerardo Martino said, “He’s probably the biggest signing not just for us, but for the league.”

That’s a heavy mental burden for anyone, much less a teen. The results haven’t been what anyone expected. Yes, the team won an MLS Cup, but Barco didn’t start any of those five games in 2018 and played only 20 minutes in the playoffs. He didn’t start in the team’s win over Club America in the 2019 Campeones Cup, either. He did start in the U.S. Open Cup championship game a few weeks later, but contributed neither a goal nor an assist.

The player who was supposed to be the next great standout has only 10 goals and seven assists in 64 combined league games and playoff games.

Three years later, Barco, 22 and still at Atlanta United, spoke with a group of journalists via Zoom on Thursday. He said that it is “fundamental” that he perform this year to fulfill his dream of playing in Europe.

In some ways, Barco hasn’t changed much from that first interview to Thursday’s.

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

Atlanta United's Ezequiel Barco (8) attempts to penetrate the Columbus defense Tuesday, July 21, 2020, during MLS tournament in Orlando, Fla.
Atlanta United's Ezequiel Barco (8) attempts to penetrate the Columbus defense Tuesday, July 21, 2020, during MLS tournament in Orlando, Fla.

Credit: Atlanta United

Credit: Atlanta United

On Thursday, he said, “I think my goal and the goal of everyone on the team is to win titles. Atlanta is a big club and a club that needs to win titles. We are working toward that.”

The club will need Barco to make that happen. Manager Gabriel Heinze has moved Barco from the wing, which he said he preferred to play three years ago, into a more central role where he can be more of a playmaker. He said Thursday that he is comfortable in either position. Moving inside will allow Barco to take advantage of his keen passing ability and, because he was the most fouled player per minutes played in the league last season, opportunities to win free kicks in dangerous, goal-scoring spots on the field.

Barco has looked dangerous this preseason. He scored two goals in a training exercise against Charleston two weeks ago and was hacked down several times in go-for-it free-kick spots against Birmingham last week.

Those are good signs, but consistency has been the biggest problem for Barco in MLS. He will have stretches of brilliance -- two goals and one assist in last season’s first two games -- followed by almost nothing -- one assist in his remaining 13 appearances. In 2019, four goals and an assist in a six-game stretch early in the season followed by zero goals and one assist in the remainder of the league games.

Some of that inconsistency is related to missing stretches of games because of injuries, he has appeared in only 56 of the team’s 91 regular-season games. Some of it by choices he has made, such as the two-game suspension in 2018 for an act of indiscipline. Some because he missed games with his club after he was called to Argentina’s U20 team in 2019. Some of it may be because of Barco’s attitude. Teammate Josef Martinez, asked about Barco three weeks ago, said, “We are soccer players. We have salary for soccer players. If you don’t do 100 percent in games, it’s hard. Hopefully, he can do better. He looks very good. I’m so happy for him.”

Barco said Thursday that his mental approach is very positive this season, in part because of the coaching staff’s focus on each player’s diet, recovery and well-being. Barco said he really is working to implement what the staff wants into his life.

Barco has the talent. He has shown it in helping his previous club, Independiente, win the 2017 Copa Sudamericana, for the Argentina U20 national team and for Atlanta United. But if Barco doesn’t take the next step, show what he has learned and consistently play well, it may be more difficult to fulfill his dream of playing for a club in Europe.

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

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