Voices: Sam Jones

Atlanta United's Ezequiel Barco is becoming the best version of himself just in time

Ezequiel Barco – Atlanta United – dribble

There’s the Gabriel Heinze era of 2021 Atlanta United and the post-Heinze era of 2021 Atlanta United. The first era involved Atlanta United failing to win a game for nearly three months and the other has involved six wins in the last seven games and a sudden surge into an Audi MLS Cup Playoff spot before Saturday's hosting of D.C. United (3:30 pm ET | Univision, TUDN, Twitter.)

There’s the pre-Olympics era of 2021 Ezequiel Barco and the post-Olympics era of 2021 Atlanta United. The first era involved Barco scoring once in eight games and the other has involved Barco scoring five times and earning four assists in eight games as a centerpiece of Atlanta United’s transition back into being, well, Atlanta United.

If you check the calendar, post-Heinze and post-Olympics line up nicely. Clearly, Barco is breaking good because Atlanta’s tactics are allowing him to be the player he’s always been. Or maybe Atlanta are playing far better because Barco has discovered something within himself? Maybe something happened in Tokyo, Japan that set him on a course to living up to his famous reported $15 million price tag from Argentine Primera División side Independiente in a way he never has?

Maybe all of those things have happened and this truly is a different player? Or it could be that none of those things have happened. Ok, I guess now is the part where if we’re honest, we admit that no one really knows the exact reason why a 22-year-old Barco suddenly looks like a Best XI-caliber player.

Normally there’s a ramp-up to these kinds of things. Instead, Barco hopped off a plane and scored more goals in his first eight games back than he ever had in a season and doubled the number of assists he recorded each of his first three years. He went from 3.63 shot-creating actions per game to 5.88. His expected goals numbers jumped from 0.6 to 3.2 and his expected assist total went from 0.9 to 2.6. He basically quadrupled his output over the same amount of time.

It’s been a long road to get to a point where Barco appears to have found the gas pedal. He played in 26 games for Atlanta’s MLS Cup-winning 2018 team (his first year in the league), but found himself benched at the end of the season for reasons on and off the field. Since then, injuries and underproduction have kept him firmly labeled as a bust – $15 million of unmanifested potential. Now, maybe when Atlanta United have needed it from him most, he’s living up to the billing.

Coaching helps in that regard, of course. Atlanta have abandoned the man-marking principles established under Heinze and have chosen to believe in free will as a dogma for their players in attack rather than strictly defining the answers to every solution for them. The team suddenly looks like the Von Trapp kids in "The Sound of Music" throwing off their grey uniforms and running around and singing songs and convincing nuns to do some light treason. Now there’s freedom and fun and creativity and, most importantly, results. But it’s probably not as simple as pointing to the tactics and giving former interim manager Rob Valentino and new manager Gonzalo Pineda all the credit.

“He’s got these gifts, certain players just have. Some things you can coach better and do exercises for. Some things, like if I do an individual session with Barco, I can’t teach him how to dribble like that or have that pace,” Valentino said after Atlanta United’s 3-2 win over Columbus in August. “There are certain things that you need to let them have the freedom to do. It’s like a 'I give you one, you give me one' kind of deal. If I tell him, I need you to do this defensively, then I’ll give you the freedom attacking-wise. I’m not doing anything different.”

That dribbling ability and pace has always been there. He’s been put into teams where he’s been allowed to create and attack before. But physically and mentally it seems that he’s been lacking. The injury issues can’t be overstated enough. It’s hard to prove yourself when you’re missing well over half of your potential games. Meanwhile, mentally he’s never seemed completely locked in. Barco is reserved and soft-spoken. And it’s clear at times that he’s quick to think too negatively of himself too quickly.

“Barquito is special. He’s like my son. You have to love him,” Josef Martinez said after Atlanta’s 1-0 win over LAFC. “There are days he understands more than others but he’s improving. The other day he scored a golazo. I’m glad for him because we’ve shared a lot of moments, good and not so good, and I see a sensitive person. You have to know how to treat him, give him advice, talk to him; because when he’s in form he’s a difference-maker for us.”

Maybe the change in form is a bit easier to understand through that lens. That Barco is perhaps atypical from other top-level athletes in that his relationships with others define how he feels and how he plays rather than the more solipsistic mentalities that are praised with greater regularity. Not that those mentalities are wrong. Just different. And it’s why it’s not crazy to think that the transitions in management from Frank de Boer’s interactions and Gabriel Heinze’s nature to Rob Valentino and Gonzalo Pineda’s warmth have played a part in his turnaround.

That may not be giving him enough personal credit, though. Barco has always put in effort on the field, but now it appears that he’s fitter and stronger than ever before. Some credit to Heinze here: Barco mentioned at the beginning of the season that he’d been given a new diet. Barco has clearly adhered to it on some level and is combining his endurance and speed with a mind that not only wants to win, but is rapidly learning how to go about that process effectively. He is relentlessly attacking space with the ball at his feet for the entire 90 minutes these days. He’s also putting in the work defensively.

“‘That kid defends. Make sure you guys watch this game and see him defend’,” Valentino said after Atlanta’s 1-0 win over Toronto. “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. And all of our players have, but you’re asking about Barco. I watched him in Columbus, in the 94th minute I think, he sprinted across the field, made a slide tackle on Pedro Santos. Then later in the play, he picked up the ball, counterattacked about 50-60 yards, lost the ball, and then sprinted back 50-60 yards and got back in position for someone else. And I don’t think people see that stuff. The kid works. And now he’s adding production to it.”

Because of that production, Atlanta fans may have to reckon with the fact that this version of Barco may not be around for long. It already seemed likely that he might be on his way out of Georgia this year or the next. In fact, it was always the intention to sell him. The plan from the start had been for Barco to take the league by storm and secure a big-money move to Europe. That didn’t really seem possible a few months ago. Now, he may just be showing enough potential to earn that move. And Atlanta’s fans will be sad to see him go.

The tactics, the mentality, the fitness, the evolution of an Atlanta attack that now includes players like Luiz Araujo and an increasingly healthy Josef Martinez – each element has its own place in creating this souped-up version of Barco. It’s unclear exactly how and why it’s all combined at once to create a player that no one, likely even Barco, believed existed. But it is becoming increasingly obvious that the player we’re seeing now isn’t at his peak. The only difference now is that the next time he contributes to nine goals in eight games, people won’t be surprised. Even if it did take a while to get here.

“We have to remember that he is still a young player. He came into the league I think 17 or 18 years old and he’s been progressing, he’s been evolving, he’s more mature now,” Gonzalo Pineda said after Atlanta’s 4-0 win over Cincinnati.

“He’s also very hungry and that’s one of the key factors that I can identify as important for his performance. I watch every session. He kills himself on the field. Sometimes I’m a little bit concerned, managing his load because he is playing many games. He goes and performs in every training session the same way that you just saw. Scoring goals, counter-pressing, running in behind, creating chances for his team. And that’s what amazes me about Barco. He’s very hungry. I think he has a very high ceiling. I don’t think we are seeing the best Barco, but what we are seeing now is very good.”