After a cold, chilly morning in central Florida, the sun started shining as soon as Ezequiel Barco touched down in Orlando on Tuesday.
It seems the $15 million spent by Atlanta United can buy a lot.
Barco’s flight from Buenos Aires in his native Argentina started at 11:30 p.m. on Monday and had a layover in Miami at 7:30 a.m. before continuing to Orlando. There, Barco disembarked, posed for a photo at 10:51 a.m., and was taken to meet his new teammates at a resort near Orlando, where the team is in the second week of preseason training.
Though a long flight, it was the shortest part of the months-long negotiation that resulted in Atlanta United shattering the MLS transfer record to purchase the 18-year-old midfielder from Independiente in Argentina.
“It feels really good to finally be here after the long process,” he said in an exclusive interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and his first as an Atlanta United player.
The sun has been shining brightly on Barco and Atlanta United since the transfer was announced on Jan. 19 during the SuperDraft in Philadelphia.
The reported transfer fee wasn’t confirmed by team president Darren Eales, but he said it was in the ballpark. It could be off by around $5 million and would still be the biggest transfer purchase by an MLS club in the league’s 22-year history. It was paid because Barco is considered one of the brightest young talents in world soccer. He made 38 appearances for Independiente, scoring five goals, including one in the finals of the Copa Sudamericana tournament.
Barco said he is aware that he is the most expensive player in league history, but said no pressure comes with the price tag.
“I just want to do everything I can to enjoy it and be a champion with Atlanta,” he said.
Barco spoke on Tuesday after watching the team’s second session. The practice started at 4 p.m. Barco, wearing a long black jacket with an Atlanta United logo, watched the team warm up before manager Gerardo Martino took him to the side and spoke to him for several minutes. After they finished talking, Barco watched a few more minutes of training before going to the gym with an assistant coach and some of his new teammates.
The rumors of Atlanta United’s interest in Barco started in the fall and alternated between an agreement being done and then not being done as the weeks dragged by. Hence, #BarcoWatch – first a guessing game about when he would sign followed by another guessing game about when he would arrive – has been an ongoing twitter debate for fans of Atlanta United for weeks. Barco didn’t know about the hashtag, but smiled after being told.
“He’s probably the biggest signing not just for us, but for the league,” Martino said. “It makes sense that people are talking about that.”
After Independiente kept delaying negotiations with Atlanta United, Barco forced the club's hand by declining to train with the team. He described it as his last alternative.
“I had made up my mind that I wanted to come to Atlanta,” he said.
Barco wanted to come because of the interest he said the club had shown in him. He was impressed that members of the front office flew to Buenos Aires to meet with him. He likes the idea of playing for Martino and alongside Miguel Almiron, Josef Martinez, Hector Villalba and Greg Garza, among others.
Barco said he began watching Atlanta United’s games on TV last year when the rumors linking him to the club started.
“Today I was talking with Almiron about the game they played in the snow, and I had watched it also so we were talking,” he said. “I watched a lot of games.”
Tuesday’s arrival was the first time Barco has been in the U.S. since playing in a tournament in Orlando years ago. He has never been to Atlanta. He has only seen the $60-million training facility in Marietta and $1.5-billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium on videos on cellphones. He said he’s eager to see them in person when the team returns next week.
Barco is scheduled to undergo a physical Wednesday morning and hopes to join the team for the scheduled second training session in the afternoon.
“We will evaluate him when he gets here and will make sure his incorporation into the team is progressive,” Martino said. “It will depend upon what kind of shape he is in. We aren’t in a hurry. We want to incorporate him into the team as best as possible. The season is still a way’s away, so we aren’t in a hurry.”
Scouting himself, though right-footed, Barco said prefers to play on the left so that he can cut inside his defender. He said he likes to take on defenders and that he is fast.
He thinks he will learn a lot from Martino and his coaching staff.
“Every time you are with a new club you are trying to improve,” he said. “‘Tata’ is a great coach. I will try to improve as much as I can and learn from him.”
Lastly, Barco laughed off any comparisons that have been made between he and Lionel Messi. They are both from Argentina. Neither are tall. Both are fast.
“There’s only one Messi,” he said. “I don’t think anyone in the world will ever be able to do what he’s done.”
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Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC