Atlanta United’s Barco could return in time for Minnesota game

Atlanta United midfielder Ezequiel Barco could return from injury as early as the end of the month, manager Gerardo Martino said Thursday. Barco could play in Atlanta United’s game at Minnesota United on March 31.

Barco, the most expensive transfer in MLS history after Atlanta United paid Independiente $15 million for his rights, suffered a quad injury the week of the season opener at Houston.

Barco has missed the first two games and will miss Saturday’s game against Vancouver. Atlanta United has next week off before the Minnesota game, a two-week stretch between games. The initial diagnosis called for Barco to miss 4-6 weeks.

Martino said Barco had some images of the quad taken last week and the inflammation was reduced.

“It’s up to him, his recovery process and going through the rehab process,” Martino said.

Barco has not yet begun training with the team.

Teammate Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, who is Barco’s roommate, said he is trying to lift Barco’s spirits.

“He’s not very happy with the situation, but he keeps going with the recovery,” Gonzalez Pirez said.

It will be interesting to see how Martino uses Barco, who is typically a left-sided midfielder, when he returns, particularly if the team continues with the 3-5-2 formation. In that formation, the strikers were Josef Martinez and Hector Villalba, and the midfielders were Miguel Almiron, Darlington Nagbe and Jeff Larentowicz. The wingbacks were Greg Garza and Julian Gressel.

In other injury news, backup goaltender Mitch Hildebrandt is expected to miss 8-10 weeks with a knee injury suffered in training last week. Martino said he was relieved as the team initially feared the injury was more serious. Hildebrandt was signed during the offseason from Cincinnati in the USL.

Midfielder Brandon Vazquez has been cleared to return after suffering discomfort in his hamstring within the past two weeks. Martino said the trainers are managing him day to day.