Barco’s all-around game coming through for Atlanta United

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Atlanta United’s Ezequiel Barco tied his career high in goals (four) in a season with Wednesday night’s winner against Toronto at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

As has been the case since he returned from the Olympics, it’s the work that Barco is doing when he doesn’t have the ball that also is standing out.

Late in the game, Atlanta United attempted a counterattack. The ball was lost. Toronto recovered. Barco recognized that there was a lot of space vacant in the middle of his team’s formation. He got up and sprinted some 30 yards to occupy that space, about 40 yards from Atlanta United’s goal. The decision and action showed awareness, maturity, conditioning and a strong desire to win.

“I don’t think people see that stuff,” interim manager Rob Valentino said. “The kid works. And now he’s adding production to it. It’s good to see. I hope he keeps growing, I hope he keeps pushing because he wants to be better. He has big aspirations, and I hope we can help him be a part of that.”

With 14 games remaining, and Barco having already tied his career high in assists (three) in a season in a victory Sunday against LAFC, he seems sure to set new personal marks for the team this season.

“My teammates make me feel good on the field. The coaching staff gives me the freedom to move across the attack, and that gives me a lot of confidence and to be able to help the team,” he said.

The recovery run against Toronto isn’t the first time that Barco has pushed himself late in a game to help the team. Valentino noted an even tougher play against Columbus in which Barco sprinted across the field, tackled Pedro Santos, eventually received the ball, ran some 50 yards, lost the ball, and then sprinted back 50 yards again to defend. He ran some 140 yards. In the 94th minute.

“I think a lot of people probably criticize his defending,” Valentino said. “I said to our staff, when we played Montreal, they said, ‘We have to make sure we get our attackers to defend.’ And I said, ‘That kid defends. Make sure you guys watch this game and see him defend.’ And you can check his numbers. He runs. Now maybe I can give him better direction on where to run. I can work on that. But he’s putting in some serious shifts.”

Barco’s results on defense were an issue the past few seasons. The effort was there. Barco would almost always run, but a tackle would be missed or a runner not marked.

Now, he’s starting to put together the whole package.

Barco took it upon himself before the season to hire a nutritionist to help him maintain his health. He looks faster and fitter than at any point since he joined the club before the 2018 season. Instead of being tackled from behind, Barco is fast enough to be able to escape defenders, even when dribbling.

His winner against Toronto and the assist against LAFC are examples.

In both actions, Barco was able to run past the the opponent’s back line to catch up to a pass hit over the top of the defense. Each time he was quick enough to stay away from the defenders once he received the ball. Against LAFC, he passed to Josef Martinez for the winner. Against Toronto, despite being surrounded by four players, Barco hit a cheeky chip that took a slight deflection before flying into the upper left corner of the goal.

Barco acknowledged before the season that this was an important year for his career. He wants to challenge himself by playing for a club in Europe. Atlanta United likely wants to recoup some of its investment in him, which included a transfer fee of $13.5 million.

Should Barco continue scoring, providing assists and playing defense as he has, it seems more probable than at any time since he left Independiente to join MLS that a move will happen for the 22-year-old.

“... As I said before I feel good on the field, both tactically and physically,” he said. “But this is just getting started. We’re starting to win after a long time, and we have to stay on this path to achieve more things.”