Ezequiel Barco - playing for Independiente - side view

Stejskal: Ezequiel Barco deal will benefit all of MLS in long-term ambition

PHILADELPHIA – After months of speculation, Atlanta United finally closed the biggest transfer deal in MLS history on Friday, when they announced they acquired Ezequiel Barco from Independiente.

The 18-year-old Argentina youth international is a game-changer for Atlanta. He’ll play a massive role for them on the field in 2018 as they look to improve upon their historic expansion season, lining up alongside Miguel Almiron, Josef Martinez and Hector Villalba in what should be a hugely exciting attack.

He’s an incredible get for the league, too, the biggest in a series of offseason acquisitions of young, talented South American attackers. Matt Doyle wrote about what his signing means through the lens of that overall trend, and I agree with his takes. Signing Barco is a statement of intent by Atlanta, both to their MLS counterparts and to foreign clubs. They are not to be trifled with.

But this is about more than Atlanta’s 2018 roster or longer-term hunt for trophies. This is about more than the Five Stripes pushing the rest of the league forward. This is about more than investing, developing, winning, selling and profiting. This is about the long-term vision of MLS, being enacted in real-time by the league’s most ambitious club.

Atlanta United president Darren Eales | Brett Davis/USA Today Images

I could attempt to unpack more of that myself, but I’ll let Atlanta United president and 2017 MLS Executive of the Year Darren Eales do the heavy lifting for me. Here’s how he summed it all up on Friday:

“Three years ago, when I came from Tottenham Hotspur, I really believed in Major League Soccer that you could make it a place where players could come to develop,” Eales said. “Like the rest of the world of soccer, every club is part of that pipeline and that sort of supply-chain. So, my view was you could attract top talent and if you could then move them on then, that’s good for everybody because you can reinvest those funds and get that next young player.

“I think with Almiron, with Miguel, in particular I think that was a factor. He came to this league, he’s playing in front of crowds of 70,000, he’s training at a training ground that’s equal to any club in the world with a coach like Tata Martino and clearly his game is developing, so I think it’s easier for us to go to other players in South America or around the world and say this league, MLS is a league that’s going places. You can come here, be a superstar for a while and then still get that move to a top club. And then hopefully, ultimately what we want to do is retain that talent when the league goes from strength to strength and becomes one of the top three or four in the world.”

That last sentence is the key. Barco alone won’t put MLS in the top three or four leagues in the world. He’s not the first talented youngster to sign with a club here, and he certainly won’t be the last. But his deal, which Eales called the most difficult of his career, is a huge leap forward, a major step on the long path toward turning MLS into the “league of choice” so many want it to be.

It’ll probably be a long time before Atlanta or any other MLS team replicate this move. Barco is one of the most sought-after teens in the entire world, and Eales said he chose Atlanta over several big European clubs that matched the Five Stripes’ offer. Players of his caliber don’t arrive here every winter.

They don’t have to for MLS to grow. The more Atlanta and clubs like New York City FC and LAFC search the globe for these types of players, the more of them that MLS develops. And eventually, the more of them that are sold and then succeed at big European clubs, the better the league will become. Signing Barco isn’t the beginning and it’s definitely not the end, but it’s an important milepost on MLS’s accelerating road toward becoming one of the top leagues in the world.