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Atlanta United’s Ezequiel Barco displays star quality at U-20 World Cup

Barco is excelling with Argentina while Atlanta United’s attack struggles.

Atlanta United midfielder Ezequiel Barco (8) smiles at his bench after scoring against the New England Revolution during the first half at Gillette Stadium.
Apr 13, 2019; Foxborough, MA, USA; Atlanta United midfielder Ezequiel Barco (8) smiles at his bench after scoring against the New England Revolution during the first half at Gillette Stadium. (Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports)

MARIETTA,Ga. — When Ezequiel Barco received the call to play for Argentina at the 2019 Under-20 World Cup in Poland, Atlanta United manager Frank de Boer had to make a joke.

“For him, it’s a great experience, because a lot of eyes normally will be on those kind of teams, especially Argentina,” de Boer told reporters at a post-training media session. “A lot of scouts will come to visit them — so hopefully he doesn’t do that well.”

De Boer and his audience laughed. But if there is always a little truth in comedy, the Dutchman must be feeling at least a few nerves. Barco started Argentina’s opening game of the tournament Sunday and scored two goals in La Albiceleste’s 5-2 win over South Africa. He followed that up with a free kick assist in a 2-0 win over Portugal on Tuesday.

Barco’s first goal against South Africa was a penalty —he knows a thing or two about big spot kicks. His second was a world-class volley, taken with the inside of his right foot and curled inside the far post from about 15 yards. It was the sort of goal that immediately lights up the Twittersphere.

Commenting on that highlight Tuesday, de Boer joked again before showering his attacker with praise.

“Hopefully he doesn’t move after July,” the manager said at the Children’s Healthcare Training Ground. “Yeah, it was a fantastic goal. That was high quality, unbelievable. I congratulated him with his performance, but especially that goal. That’s high quality. Now the world will see that, of course. It’s good for us because you see that he has confidence. If you do that, you have to have confidence.”

Barco’s club teammates shared their manager’s enthusiasm.

“It was beautiful,” Darlington Nagbe said of the goal. “I didn’t think he was going to hit it first-time, but that was a great take and a great finish by him.”

“Golazo,” Barco’s compatriot Franco Escobar added, through an interpreter. “It’s surprising, but at the same time it’s not, because he’s a player who everybody knows his quality. We train with him every day and we see him score goals like that in training. So we know he’s capable of it. It was an incredible goal.”

When Atlanta purchased Barco from Independiente in Argentina for $15 million, the deal reportedly came with a 30 percent sell-on clause that is valid through the end of this year. In other words, Atlanta would owe Independiente 30 percent of whatever transfer fee it could get for Barco if the player were sold in this summer’s transfer window. The clause reportedly drops to 10 percent on January 1. It would take an exorbitant offer to pry the 20-year-old away from the Five Stripes in 2019. 

De Boer was asked whether his quip on a July move was indeed a joke. He explained that a shining performance in the U-20 World Cup can draw attention from the biggest clubs on the planet. At the 2017 World Cup, American Josh Sargent won the silver boot with four goals and one assist. He was playing with the IMG Academy in Florida at the time. Bundesliga side Werder Bremen announced its signing of Sargent three months after the tournament ended.

“You know, and I know, that at this tournament, every scout from every big club are there,” the manager said. “Also, my sister’s son is here. He’s working for a Dutch club. They are, AZ Alkmaar, the number four of the Dutch league. They are also with two scouts there. There are so many scouts, I think if you look to the stands, I think 50 percent [of those in attendance] will be scouts.

“If he does well and makes this kind of goal, I know that a lot of clubs will look to him. I know what my sister’s son said: They gave him an A-rating. That’s the highest rating you can get. I don’t think they can spend that much money [on] him, but still. … Hopefully he does not go halfway through this season, but we can also be proud that we developed a player like Barco.”

Barco’s quality was obvious against South Africa and Portugal, and it is something Atlanta United has missed lately. In his last game with Atlanta before departing for his national team, the Major League Soccer record signing put three of six shots on target, scored a goal and provided an assist for Josef Martínez. Atlanta defeated Sporting Kansas City, 3-0, at Children’s Mercy Park. Barco was a relentless, creative force, and the Five Stripes hounded Tim Melia’s goal with 19 shots, eight on target. The 20-year-old has four goals and one assist in eight Major League Soccer games, six starts, this year.

Since the win over SKC, Atlanta is 3-2-0, and its attack has petered out. In consecutive losses at the New York Red Bulls and Real Salt Lake, the Five Stripes amassed a total of five shots on target. Fatigue is a significant issue: The defeat at RSL was Atlanta’s sixth game in 20 days, and it capped a three-game road trip that went from Vancouver to New Jersey to Utah, with legs back to Atlanta in between. But Barco’s absence has loomed large, too. Gonzalo “Pity” Martínez still is not the consistent attacking threat who can make the Five Stripes dangerous. No one else has been able to replace Barco’s combination of passing vision, dribbling ability and class in front of goal.

“We can talk about it, but it has no use, and we have to do with the players that we have,” de Boer said. “I think we have enough quality to win from everybody.”

Without Barco, Atlanta hosts Minnesota United this Wednesday and the Chicago Fire on Saturday. Then, the club has a three-and-a-half week international break for the start of the Concacaf Gold Cup and Conmebol Copa America tournaments. When the Five Stripes return to action at Toronto FC on June 26, Barco should be back in an Atlanta shirt, but other players, such as Josef Martínez, Héctor “Tito” Villalba and Nagbe, could be away with their respective senior national teams.

“It’s difficult because he’s a very important player for our team,” Escobar said of playing without Barco. “He’s a high-level player, but we know that we have guys who are going to be with their national teams. So when they leave, it’s just about the next guys filling in for them and stepping up, and those guys knowing they don’t have to be better than a player like Barco. They just have to come in and play their game and do their role.”

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