Pity Martinez - Ezequiel Barco - 2019 All-Star

MARIETTA, Ga. — It’s as simple as this: If Atlanta United lifts another major trophy in its third successive season, it’ll be down to the health and production of Pity Martinez and Ezequiel Barco.

Only a small handful of teams in MLS have invested in Designated Players quite like Atlanta has — splashing a league record sum for a teenaged Barco after the team’s inaugural season in 2017, then nearing the same amount for the transfer of Martinez a year later.

But after one year of the two Argentine stars on the field together, manager Frank de Boer and the club front office are still waiting to see the seeds bear fruit as they approach the 2020 season opener on Saturday at Nashville SC (8 pm ET | FOX, MLS LIVE on DAZN in Canada).

Last year, the pair combined for just nine goals and 13 assists, which perhaps casts Atlanta’s relative 2019 success in a new light. It’s hard to imagine many other teams succeeding the way Atlanta did last year — winning a U.S. Open Cup and falling agonizingly short of their second consecutive MLS Cup appearance — with such little return from that kind of financial investment. 

To put those numbers in perspective, New England Revolution midfielder Carles Gil bested the pair in both goals and assists on his own. But Atlanta was fortunate to have several players who overperformed their what their budget charges might suggest, Julian Gressel and Darlington Nagbe among them.

HIGHLIGHTS: Atlanta United FC vs. Motagua | February 25, 2020

After a squad revamp this offseason, those players are gone, and the spotlight turns back to the DPs to carry the load.

“Working with them up close, you get to see the quality that they have every day,” said Atlanta United newcomer Fernando Meza at the team’s training facility Thursday. “They are very good players and we're fortunate to have them on our team, because they provide us with constant solutions on the field.”

Frank de Boer spoke glowingly about Pity Martinez after the team’s 3-0 win over FC Motagua to secure advancement to the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals Tuesday. But Barco is a player that’s flown under the radar over the better part of the last 12 months, largely due to his lack of playing time caused by injuries and international duty. Thursday, De Boer expressed just how important he is for Atlanta to be at its best.

“When you have players specifically like Barco, it helps you come out of pressure,” De Boer said. “Even though he has a guy on his back, he can turn right or left with his quick turning, he can play one against one to create an overload at the back for the opponent.

“But I'm really pleased with his work ethic. Now he has to reward himself and score a goal. He wants to feel important, so that's always nice for an attacking-minded player to give them even more confidence.”