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Barco continues to show improvement from last season

Atlanta United midfielder Esequiel Barco splits two C.S. Herediano defenders working the ball toward the goal in their Concacaf Champions League soccer match on Thursday, Feb. 28, 2019, in Kennesaw.    Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Atlanta United midfielder Esequiel Barco splits two C.S. Herediano defenders working the ball toward the goal in their Concacaf Champions League soccer match on Thursday, Feb. 28, 2019, in Kennesaw. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

It was assumed this offseason that Pity Martinez would be Miguel Almiron’s like-for-like replacement on Atlanta United.

At least for one game, a 4-0 win over Herediano on Thursday in the CONCACAF Champions League, Almiron's replacement may have already been on Atlanta United's roster: Ezequiel Barco.

Looking very much like a 1.0 version of Almiron, Ezequiel Barco ran up and down the field, contributing two assists as part of a game-high four chances created, with a tackle and winning three fouls and two more were perhaps missed by the referee.

“He’s looking very good,” Atlanta United manager Frank de Boer said after the victory. “He can be a fantastic player for Atlanta United.”

Atlanta United advances in the tournament and will next face Monterrey in a two-leg series that begins Wednesday.

De Boer said he complimented Barco after the game for how many meters he ran, something he also did after a preseason game at LAFC. Toward the end of Thursday's game, when Atlanta United's advancement was already decided, Barco still went on a long run with the ball.

“It was a sprint of 30-40 yards,” de Boer said. “It’s unbelievable.”

Though Barco failed to score, it was a signal that the midfielder isn't going to be outworked this season. That kind of tenacity was one of the traits that made Almiron so valuable the previous two seasons and helped to secure his transfer in January to Newcastle for an MLS record $27 million.

Barco said after the game that he feels fine and that the confidence shown in him by de Boer and the staff is among the reasons that he looks a different player than he did last year when Atlanta United paid $15 million for him.

Barco's first assist was a simple pass to Julian Gressel for the game's second goal in the ninth minute.

His second assist was a cross for Leandro Gonalzez Pirez to head into the goal for the game’s final score.

“He played really well, maybe he’s finding the level he had in Argentina,” Gonzalez Pirez said. “It’s important for us. Maybe he has to keep in this way. He just has to do a few things in the final plays, but he’s very good.”

Improving decision-making in the final third was also referenced by de Boer as something that Barco needs to work on.

In the first half, as he was nearing a one-on-one with Herediano’s goalkeeper he was caught from behind. It looked to be a clear denial of a goal-scoring opportunity, but Barco said he thinks the defender did get the ball before tackling him.

In the second half, Barco was in on goal but was again caught and tackled from behind. Barco said he thought that was a penalty.

Either way, it was two scoring opportunities that Barco and Atlanta United didn’t take advantage of. That is one area in which Almiron would either get off a shot, make a pass that would create a goal-scoring opportunity, or would earn the penalty.

A difference between Barco in last week’s 3-1 loss in Costa Rica and Thursday’s win was how he kept his composure with the ball on counterattacks. In Heredia, when Barco would receive the ball he would sprint down the field, leaving his teammates behind and run himself into a numerical disadvantage. On Thursday in Kennesaw, Barco made sure to look around to see if his teammates were with him as he moved down the field.

“A player in his position has to be more decisive, but we need to remember he’s still young,” de Boer said of the 19-year old. “Of course he has to make goals, but it starts with this mentality, this energy.

“I’m convinced when he gets stronger, more experience, he will make goals and assists. I’m very happy for him.”