ATLANTA — Ezequiel Barco is back in the good graces of Atlanta United manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino, it seems.
The 19-year-old Argentine saw the pitch in a Major League Soccer match for the first time in more than a month when he was substituted on in the 74th minute for Julian Gressel in Atlanta’s 3-1 win over the Columbus Crew on Sunday.
Barco, who Atlanta paid a reported record $15 million transfer fee for in the offseason to bring him up from Argentine club Independiente, was benched for two games by the club and an additional game by Martino for what the manager called at the time an “act of indiscipline.”
After playing 19 minutes on Sunday, the young winger declined to clarify what exactly that act of indiscipline was.
“It was a decision by the coaching staff,” Barco said through a translator. “And after that, all I can do is continue working hard to do everything I can to get back on the field.”
Before Barco was benched, he had started in 15 consecutive MLS matches. During that span, he tallied four goals and an assist. He also remains among the league leaders in fouls suffered, drawing 2.9 per-game.
When he subbed on for Gressel on Sunday, it allowed Hector “Tito” Villalba to switch from the left wing to the right, where he is more comfortable. Villalba scored in the 76th minute and then notched an assist in the 82nd minute.
“It’s important to have (Barco) back,” Martino said. “Just like before, when we had him and Tito on the bench, now to have both of those guys back is just a benefit for our team, to have guys who are able to come in off the bench and be able to enter a game and make an impact… The more deep and complete our roster is, the better off we are.”
Barco tallied just seven touches in the game, but completed all five of his passes and won a foul. Since July 15, the only other game he has played in was the MLS All-Star Game.
To say he was excited to be back on the pitch with the Five Stripes might be a massive understatement.
“I’m really happy to get back out there. I think it was even more important for us to get the win as a team, but I’m happy to get back on the field,” Barco said. “I just wanted to do everything that Tata and the coaches are always asking me to do. I want to do everything that I’m asked to do on the field.”
Barco added that, while he hasn’t played in games as much recently, he has still been training regularly and was confident he could play a full 90 minutes if needed.
But how much Barco plays going forward will be interesting to see. The Five Stripes are playing well, leading the league in points and goals scored.
And Villalba seems to be in his best form of the season, and Gressel has assisted on eight of Josef Martinez’s league-leading 27 goals this season. Villalba’s speed and play-making ability, combined with Gressel’s knack for crosses, Miguel Almiron’s skill to create and play box-to-box, and Martinez’s nose for the goal makes Atlanta’s attack very deadly for opposing defenses.
But Villalba plays his best football on the right wing, where Gressel has started for the majority of the season. Would Martino bench Gressel to play Barco on the left and Villalba on the right? Would he move Gressel to right back? Would he switch the roles of Barco and Villalba, and make Villalba come off the bench?
Or will Barco, Atlanta’s second-highest paid player, remain as a super-sub as the Five Stripes make their MLS cup run?
Whatever role Barco is saddled with, Martinez is confident that his young Argentine teammate will adjust and make the most of it.
“Ezequiel always plays well. I think that, just as any athlete, you always have good days and bad days. If he never had bad days, then he’d be playing in Real Madrid,” Martinez said. “I think it’s important for him to keep working and keep learning, and he’ll be okay.”