Way back in 1996, D.C. United put together what might still be the dynasty to measure all MLS dynasties by. The group was a collection of young, high-upside US players (Eddie Pope and Tony Sanneh), USMNT regulars (John Harkes and Jeff Agoos), a few scrappy gamers (Richie Williams and Steve Rammel), and a Central American star (Raul Diaz Arce). That group, together, would've been good enough to – at the very least – compete.
But it was two other signings that defined those early D.C. teams, and thus defined the first four seasons of Major League Soccer: In January 1996, United inked Marco Etcheverry, a 26-year-old Bolivian playmaker who'd finished second in the CONMEBOL Player of the Year voting; six months later, they added Etcheverry's international teammate, then-22-year-old Jaime Moreno.
D.C. won MLS Cup and the U.S. Open Cup in 1996. In 1997, they won the Supporters' Shield and MLS Cup. In 1998, they won the CONCACAF Cup (the precursor to the CONCACAF Champions League) and the Copa Interamericana (in which the top CONCACAF club squared off against the Copa Libertadores winner – and yes, that made D.C. champions of the Americas in 1998). In 1999, they again won the MLS Cup-Supporters' Shield double.
Some of the names changed over the years, but the fundamental pillars of this team's greatness were Etcheverry and Moreno (and Pope). These weren't the best players in the world, but they were the best in MLS, and their team played like it.
There have been other Etcheverrys in MLS, guys like Nicolas Lodeiro and Diego Valeri. There have been other Morenos, guys like Fredy Montero and Josef Martinez. MLS teams have always raided Latin America for talent.
But it took until the arrival of Atlanta United for any particular team to take that approach to its logical conclusion: Don't just buy good, in-their-prime players to build around. Buy the very best up-and-coming players to make your club a true destination on the way to, one hopes, international superstardom.
That's him being the best player on the field in the Copa Sudamericana final. Performances like that, at his age, are why the Five Stripes have just shattered the MLS record for the highest transfer fee ever paid in this league. And that, my friends, is how a team comes in and pushes the envelope of what's possible in this league of ours.
Barco doesn't exist in a vacuum, of course – teams around the league have been investing in younger talent this offseason. Jesus Medina is already in the Bronx, and Kaku Gamarra's likely heading to Harrison. Diego Rossi's in downtown LA, and Josue Colman will set up in downtown Orlando. MLS has become a stop on the path from Latin America to Europe, and that should pay off with 1) better soccer, and 2) more money on the back end.
By that I mean that Barco isn't just a player. He is very much an investment by Arthur Blank & Co., one they will hope pays off with trophies in the short term and substantial profit in the long term. (My guess? I'll be writing a farewell article 24 months from now) NYCFC worked around the margins of this particular system by taking a quality youngster Yangel Herrera on loan from Manchester City; ATLUTD has blown the system wide open by spending first on Almiron, and now – bigger – on Barco.
These are guys who will be sold on for eight figures someday soon. This is how teams in the spot where Atlanta United are (and, by extension, all of MLS is) on the international stage have to operate. Develop, win, and sell. It's literally what Independiente did with Barco and what Lanus did with Almiron, and it should be the story for Atlanta's own academy products, guys like Andrew Carleton and Chris Goslin and Lagos Kunga, next.
It's a place I've been hoping, for 20 years, that MLS would reach. Barco's signing is a big moment for Atlanta because he's a great player, but also because he's a statement of intent: "We will be players in the global market."
Two decades ago it was D.C. United setting the pace with their approach to Latin American talent. Now someone's finally eclipsed them. The rest of the league should be on notice because, with the way Atlanta's been operating, it seems pretty clear they're not particularly interested in giving anyone a chance to catch up.