Ezequiel Barco’s transfer fee cost Atlanta United $15 million earlier this offseason.
That, combined with high praise from the club’s brass, him being just 18-years-old and the Argentinian winger galloping through preseason friendlies like a stallion in a field of firecrackers, has grown his hype bigger than Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
His strike for a goal against Minnesota helped too.
But fans of the Five Stripes will have to wait a bit longer for Barco’s regular season debut in Major League Soccer. On Wednesday, the club announced that the midfielder will miss four to six weeks due to a right quad strain.
The club said he suffered the injury in Wednesday morning’s training and didn’t elaborate any further. The timeline for Barco’s return means he’ll miss roughly three to five games. He could return as soon as April 1 at Minnesota or as late as April 15 at home against NYCFC.
Barco started three preseason games for the Five Stripes and it seemed like he was beginning to develop some chemistry with Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez.
The question now is: In Barco’s absence, who will Gerardo “Tata” Martino call on to replace his production?
Who steps in?
In what many would call the easy option, Martino could plug in reigning MLS Rookie of the Year Julian Gressel on the left wing. Gressel has been playing right wing during preseason in the absence of Hector Villalba – who missed the first three preseason matches with a leg injury – but Gressel has shown versatility and the ability to play a number of positions.
Another option is to push Villalba to the left and play Gressel on the right, where he may be more comfortable.
But there is no guarantee Villalba starts or plays at all Saturday against Houston. As mentioned, he battled a leg injury earlier this preseason and looked slow and out of form last weekend against the Charleston Battery. The 5-foot-8 Argentinian may need another week of training to get back into form. He didn’t scrimmage with the team on Tuesday.
If Villalba sits out Saturday’s game, Martino would likely be comfortable starting Gressel on the right and finding a different substitution for Barco. He could push Miguel Almirón to the left wing, move Darlington Nagbe up to attacking mid and plug in Chris McCann at defensive mid.
However, while Jeff Larentowicz and McCann bring plenty of veteran experience, a pairing of them in the defensive midfield could be a disaster for both ends of the field because of their combined lack of athleticism and speed. This option would also put arguably the team’s best player, Almirón, at a less influential position. Putting Nagbe on the left and keeping Almirón centered is a better version of this modification to the lineup since Nagbe has logged far more minutes at the position than Almirón.
A move many fans would like to see is Martino sub in 17-year-old homegrown Andrew Carleton for Barco. But this is the season opener, on the road, against a very fast team. Carleton has shown that he deserves first-team minutes, but starting may not be in the cards for him just yet. Still, Carleton played well last weekend, and Martino wouldn’t be crazy to roll the dice with him.
Other options include starting Brandon Vazquez or Romario Williams, who both notched goals in the preseason.
Martino could also tinker with the formation. He’s experimented with playing just three men on defense a few times this season.
Who starts in place of Barco is unclear. What’s certain is that Atlanta has depth and Martino has plenty of options. While the $15 million-man nurses his quad, players down the depth chart should get a chance to shine.