Editor's Note: Sam Kelly is a Buenos Aires-based Englishman who's covered Argentine soccer for more than a decade. He founded Hasta El Gol Siempre, a blog covering all things Argentine soccer, in 2007 and in addition to his web work, hosts Hand of Pod, billed as the only English-language Argentine soccer podcast in the world. He's had a front-row seat to Ezequiel Barco's rise with Independiente, and is here to give us the low-down on Atlanta's newest star signing:
After an eye-catching debut season in MLS, Atlanta United look determined to continue impressing in their sophomore campaign, and the signing of rising star Ezequiel Barco from Argentine giants and newly-crowned Copa Sudamericana champions Independiente is a statement of intent. So, what can Atlanta fans expect from Barco, who this week joined the Five Stripes' preseason training camp?
What type of player is he?
With quick feet, a low center of gravity, a rapid turn of pace and a keen awareness of his passing options at all times, Barco is, in short, a cliché: the stereotypical Argentine attacking midfielder. He’s capable of running with the ball almost as quickly as he runs without it, and in the second half of 2017 he developed an uncanny instinct for the best moment to release it to a teammate. His influences show through in his play: he’s told Argentine journalists that he watches a lot of the English Premier League, and the directness with which he runs at defenders, as well as his crossing ability from wide positions, wouldn’t look out of place there.
What is his best position?
Barco first broke into Independiente’s first team in mid-2016, playing in fits and starts in the No. 10 role in the middle of a line of three attacking midfielders behind the main center forward. As the season wore on his form dipped and he played fewer minutes. At the beginning of the current (2017-18) season, manager Ariel Holan made the decision to move Barco to the left wing. Barco said at first that he wasn’t sure of the change, but he quickly grew into the role, and clearly enjoys the extra space he finds in wide positions – though as the campaign has progressed he’s been granted increasing freedom to drift inside. A classic No. 10 at heart, he is nonetheless confident on the wing, and should be able to play right across that attacking midfield line.
What is his potential?
A big club in Europe, the national team – the sky’s the limit. Argentina seems to have a conveyor belt of young attacking talent, but even with so much to choose from Barco still stands out in the same way that, say, Erik Lamela did when he broke through at River Plate. At just 18-years-old, and with what appears to be a very level head on his shoulders, Barco could go right to the top. That might mean that Atlanta provide a stepping stone rather than a final destination, but there’s no questioning that both club and fans ought to enjoy the ride.
How does he compare to Yamil Asad?
Five years younger and playing in a much more well put together team than ex-Atlanta man Yamil Asad came through at Vélez Sarsfield, Barco certainly has talent at least comparable with the 23-year-old. There are also signs, already, that should give optimism about his ability to adapt to new surroundings. Asad broke through at the club his father had played for and whose reserves he coached; comfortable and familiar surroundings. Barco has already adapted to one big change at a young age, having moved from Rosario to Greater Buenos Aires to join Independiente at 15. On the pitch, Barco perhaps doesn’t offer as much of a goal threat as Asad just yet. But there’s plenty of time.
How will he fit in with Atlanta's other attackers?
Well, Atlanta will certainly be playing the ball along the floor rather than through the air, given the average height of Miguel Almiron, Josef Martinez and Hector Villalba – and that should suit Barco perfectly! The manner in which the goals were shared around by Atlanta in 2017 is promising, because Barco is first and foremost a team player. The Independiente team he’s leaving play similar football to the Lanús side from which Almiron graduated, which bodes well for their ability to work together – as does having so many teammates (and a head coach) who speak his language. With Barco in place, I think Atlanta is going to be even more exciting to watch come March.