Ezequiel Barco, of Argentina, speaks during a news conference introducing him to the Atlanta United MLS soccer team in Marietta, Ga., Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018. Atlanta United has high expectations for a new, young star in its second season after paying an MLS-record transfer fee of $15 million for 18-year-old Barco. Barco joins Atlanta's wave of young stars from South America that also includes Miguel Almiron, Hector Villalba and Josef Martinez. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
MARIETTA, Ga. – Courting Ezequiel Barco began last summer for Atlanta United.
At a press conference on Thursday introducing the $15-million man to media, Atlanta technical director Carlos Bocanegra said the Five Stripes’ brass watched Barco play “all throughout the summer” and team officials went to Argentina to meet the 18-year-old and have dinner with him.
“We really tried to get to know [Barco] as best as we could,” Bocanegra said. “We spent some time with him, kept following him, then made another trip back down there towards the end of the year to try and start negotiations. It was a long process, but he was excellent through the whole process and now we can’t wait to move forward.”
Atlanta United hopes its pursuit pays off. The Argentinian, who signed as a Young Designated Player, joins an attack orchestrated by Gerardo “Tata” Martino that was second in Major League Soccer in scoring in 2017.
Bocanegra didn’t want to put too much pressure on the young player, though. This is an offense that features established players, such as Miguel Almirón, Josef Martínez, Héctor Villalba and Darlington Nagbe.
Barco won’t be alone.
“Yes, he came with a big price tag that everybody is aware of, but I don’t think it’s fair to put all the pressure on him,” Bocanegra said. “We expect him to be a factor, definitely a dynamic factor, but we have to remember he’s 18 and a piece of the puzzle. He’s going to be a great piece of the puzzle we hope, but we don’t want him to come in with the expectation that he needs to score 20 goals and put the team on his back.”
Barco started and played 45 minutes in Atlanta’s 3-1 preseason win last weekend against Nashville SC. He chatted often with Almirón and showed he was already developing chemistry with the club. Barco displayed some of his magnificent footwork on a flooded pitch in Nashville, on turf that laid atop a baseball diamond.
The 5-foot-5 midfielder danced around two defenders in the 13th minute, setting up what would’ve been an assist had the open shot from fellow newcomer Nagbe not sailed wide. Barco also showed skill on set pieces, lofting in a nice ball on a free kick in the 35th minute.
“My teammates have really helped me adapt to the team quickly,” Barco said Thursday through a translator. “I’m really happy to be here. I just want to say thanks to everyone here who’s helped me settle into the team.”
Aside from Barco and Martino, Atlanta’s roster features three additional players from Argentina and a few more from other South American countries.
Barco came to Atlanta on a transfer from Argentine club Independiente. He confirmed Thursday he took a piece of his MLS-record salary and donated it to his former club to build more fields.
“It was a gesture that Independiente deserved, because they opened their doors to me,” Barco said through a translator. “They gave me a chance so I wanted to say thank you.”
‘King Peach’ debuts
More than 2,000 fans got to see Atlanta’s newest player in action Thursday night at an open training session at the club’s training grounds in Marietta.
Music blared and the air filled with the smell of treats from food trucks parked just outside the field. It was a true celebration of club and supporters. Even owner Arthur Blank made a brief appearance.
Before the players were introduced, fans directed their attention to a video board that showed a short movie featuring Atlanta-born rapper 2 Chainz. The “Pretty Girls Like Trap Music” rapper appeared at the end of the video sporting Atlanta United’s new kit for the 2018 season dubbed “The King Peach.”
Atlanta United players marched out of a tunnel shortly after, sporting the kit that features a white jersey and shorts with peach accents, giving a nod to Georgia’s nickname, “The Peach State.” The team said the kit was inspired by a fan-made tifo from last season that showed a king’s crown perched atop a peach.
The background of the jersey features shapes that resemble the roof at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The “Peach King” replaces the “concrete and strawberry” kit from last season that featured silver and a faded red. The Five Stripes’ primary kit will remain the same, the red and black striped jersey with black shorts.
During the open training, the first team scrimmaged against a gaggle of players who will likely make up the roster for Atlanta United 2, its USL affiliate that will play games in Gwinnett County this season. In the scrimmage, Tata Martino began with the same Starting XI that played against Nashville.
Martino worked with the players on the team’s press near the goal and also toyed a bit with a 3-5-2 lineup.