Since coming to MLS from Independiente in 2018 for a reported $15 million transfer fee, Ezequiel Barco has proven mercurial.
In some games, he'll convincingly show why Atlanta United invested so heavily in the attacking midfielder. In others, he'll shift to the periphery and prove inconsistent. All along, European transfer speculation has continually followed his stateside career.
Saturday night’s 3-2 win at the Columbus Crew was the latest positive data point, as the 22-year-old scored the opening two goals to help snap Atlanta’s 12-match winless streak. He could have recorded a hat-trick if not for some stellar goalkeeping from Eloy Room, or if he took the 65th-minute penalty kick that Marcelino Moreno converted.
Barco, fresh off representing Argentina in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, was quick to dispel credit. Instead, he focused on the importance of three points and the belief interim head coach Rob Valentino has instilled in the squad.
“As I’ve said before, I think the coaching staff is giving us that freedom that we need across the frontline to be able to attack,” Barco said. “Thanks to them, we were able to do what we did and we’re really happy because it was a win that we have been trying to get for a long time.”
Barco opened the scoring in the 5th minute when latching onto a nifty back-heel pass from left back George Bello. The sweeping attacking move began with Barco collecting the ball at midfield, driving at Columbus’ defense, combining with Bello and finishing his left-footed shot underneath Room.
His second came in the 35th minute, dispatching a penalty kick that put Atlanta up 2-0 heading into the halftime break. By the final whistle, Barco had his second brace with Atlanta, the other coming in an April 2019 win at the New England Revolution.
Valentino, who’s charged with steadying the ship after Gabriel Heinze and Atlanta parted ways July 18, said he’s not doing anything unique with Barco. Rather, it’s just setting the Designated Player up to succeed.
“As I told you guys before, he’s got these gifts, certain players just have that,” Valentino said. “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.
“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.”
Whoever takes credit, attacking help is on the way. Star striker Josef Martinez was suspended for the Columbus match after receiving a red card midweek against CF Montreal, and new DP forward Luiz Araujo is arriving after a deadline-day transfer from reigning Ligue 1 winners Lille OSC. Further, Moreno has scored in three straight games and is enjoying his best form since last year’s move from Lanus.
If that South American quartet can get firing on all cylinders, Atlanta could continue to climb out of their early-season hole. They’re 10th in the Eastern Conference standings, only a few wins away from realistically returning to the playoff conversation. Some steadiness from Barco would go a long way, too.
“I think you are seeing the confidence in this team is really good right now,” Barco said. “Just pure happiness. This is victory we have been working towards for a long time, so pure happiness in the locker room.”