“The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”
– Robert Burns
Atlanta United stole many of the headlines over the MLS offseason. They started with the acquisition of Darlington Nagbe from Portland – which included picking up their new midfielder in a private jet – and slammed home the point by splashing $15 million on 18-year-old Argentinian attacker Ezequiel Barco. It was the biggest transfer fee an MLS team has ever spent. Everything about the Five Stripes’ offseason felt upbeat and fun.
Then the gut punch that inevitably happens whenever we as humans get too excited about anything arrived on Wednesday. Atlanta announced that Barco will miss four to six weeks with a quadriceps injury. Four to six weeks should amount to five games – ATL’s meetings with Houston, Vancouver, D.C., Minnesota and LAFC.
So, how much will Barco’s injury alter the plans of 2 Chainz’s favorite team?
From a team perspective, Atlanta have dependable depth and multiple options (we live in the era of TAM, and all that). Barco was slated to start at left wing in Tata Martino’s 4-2-3-1 formation, and his immediate replacement should be 2017 Rookie of the Year winner Julian Gressel. Pretty good option, right?
Gressel started 24 games in 2017 and showed he doesn’t look out of place next to big names like Almiron, Villalba and Martinez. Most of Gressel’s starts came on the right wing, but his skill set should translate to the left side as well. Atlanta would still be considered a threat in the East with Gressel slotted in as a starter.
For US men’s national team fans, Barco’s layoff could mean good news for one of the country’s top youth prospects, Andrew Carleton. Some in the youth national team programs rated Carleton as one of the top attacking midfielders at last year’s FIFA U-17 World Cup; the Atlanta Homegrown has a ceiling higher than most we’ve seen for an American attacker in a while.
When Barco arrived, it looked like he would get pushed down the pecking order and struggle to get MLS minutes, but now Carleton should get the chance to earn more playing time.
This is often how it works for young players, and it’s a terrible part of being a pro: One person’s nightmare is another’s good fortune, and it often takes just such a stroke of luck to get on the field. Lots of star young players fade into oblivion because they never get that break.
Looking at the bigger picture, it’s a loss for any team to lose a player like Barco, but I would actually bet his absence will help Atlanta in both the short and long term.
His $15 million price tag is a ton of money, and Atlanta’s front office and fans should certainly have high hopes. But at the same time, it’s unreasonable to think Barco won’t have growing pains. He’s an 18-year-old moving to a new league, in a new country, with a new language, on a new continent. At 18, I felt angst about going to prom. No matter good a soccer player is, we should always expect a learning curve when moving to a new place.
It felt like the hype on Atlanta was spinning a little too fast, and it would have been nearly impossible for Barco to live up to the expectations fans have placed on the most expensive transfer in league history.
So the injury could well help Barco. It will pump the breaks on the hoopla and give him more time to adjust. He now has six more weeks to feel at home in Georgia, and get comfortable in his new surroundings.
He will not have to walk into Houston's BBVA Compass Stadium on national television on opening day (Saturday, 3:30 pm ET | Univision in US), and then again at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Week 2 in front of 70,000 or so fans. He would have had the potential to face criticism if he doesn’t dazzle.
I was always worried what would happen if Barco struggled in the first couple weeks and started to lose confidence. That’s a key ingredient to a big-signing flop.
This setback may actually turn out to be a blessing. Atlanta fans should still be just as excited to cheer his Five Stripes debut, even if they have to wait a few extra weeks to see their prized new signing.