ATLANTA — Atlanta United F.C. manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino knows players don’t like watching the game from the sidelines.
But his hope is that Ezequiel Barco, one of the Five Stripes’ highest-paid players, will embrace the challenge of coming into a contest late and providing a spark. After Atlanta’s 2-1 win over the New England Revolution on Saturday, Martino pointed to a Premier League star as someone who has given his club energy late in games.
“Today, Alexi Sanchez wasn’t happy to start on the bench,” Martino said through a translator. “But when he came in, he won the game.”
Just before Atlanta took the field at Mercedes-Benz Stadium against New England, Sanchez was playing in Stretford, England and entered the game in the 67th minute. In the 90th minute, the Chilean forward scored off an assist from Ashley Young to break a tie with Newcastle United.
ALEXIS SANCHEZ! Manchester United's comeback is complete!
MU 3-2 NEW pic.twitter.com/qcvOfEWD00
— NBC Sports Soccer (@NBCSportsSoccer) October 6, 2018
Barco, 19, came to Atlanta in February on a reported $15 million transfer fee from a club in his native Argentina, Independiente. With him, came a boatload of lofty expectations.
But after starting 15 games in a row for the Five Stripes, a stretch of performances that earned him a spot on the MLS All-Star team, it’s clear Barco’s role with the club has changed. He has come off the bench in six of Atlanta’s last eight matches.
“I don’t think any player is comfortable coming off the bench, especially someone like Ezequiel, who arrived here with a lot of expectations,” Martino said. “As a coach, you make your decisions and the players have to accept them.”
Said Barco, through a translator: “I work hard all week and then it’s just the decision of the coaching staff on who plays. All I can do is work hard and go in and try to do my job.”
The 19-year-old battled an injury early in the season, missing Atlanta’s first five games, but was locked in as a starter as soon as he was healthy, typically manning the left wing for Martino. He tallied four goals and an assist over that stretch and established himself as a play-maker and creator in MLS. The league recently ranked him as the sixth best player under the age of 22.
Things seemed to change for Barco in mid-July, when Martino benched him for three games for what the manager called “an act of indiscipline.” Fans and members of the media questioned the young Argentine midfielder’s maturity and development.
On top of that, he wasn’t producing scores. Since June 30, he’s tallied zero goals and just two assists with the Five Stripes. And while Barco was on the bench, other players who can play his position, like Julian Gressel, Andrew Carleton and Hector “Tito” Villalba, continued their stellar play as Atlanta went 2-0-1.
Martino has a deep and talented roster, but he opted to ride the players who were hot when Barco returned from the dog house.
“(Barco) has to kind of regain his confidence to be able to take control of the team,” Martino said.
It appears that Barco will get the chance to do that over the two remaining games left in the regular season. In the 30th minute of Atlanta’s win over New England, MVP-candidate Miguel Almiron went down with a non-contact injury.
Almiron pointed to the rear of his left leg as he was being tended to by trainers, leading some to think the Paraguayan suffered a hamstring injury. As of Sunday evening, the club had not yet release a diagnosis of the injury, but Martino said Saturday that Almiron is “probably going to have to miss the next two games.”
When Almiron went down, Martino turned to Barco for the remaining 60 minutes of the match.
“I thought Ezequiel did well when he came in,” Martino said. “I thought he played with a lot of sacrifice.”
Barco finished the game with one chance created and he completed 85 percent of his 34 passes. He also drew a team-high five fouls, which has been something he’s excelled at this season. Barco draws a foul once every 26.67 minutes, the third highest pace in the league behind Nicolas Lodeiro and Pedro Santos, among players who have drawn at least 59 fouls.
In the win, Barco’s teammates were impressed with his play, coming on in a difficult situation.
“It’s a tough game to come into that quick, without really a warm-up. But I thought he did a good job,” Gressel said. “He found his way into the game and kept the ball for us and created some things for us. I thought he had a good game.”
And while Barco hasn’t produced an abundance of goals and assists like he was expected to, he is among league leaders in generating shots for others. Advanced statistics show that he creates 2.98 chances per 90 minutes, the eighth highest in MLS.
— OptaJack⚽️ (@OptaJack) October 6, 2018
Almiron has notched 12 goals and 14 assists this season. He and Josef Martinez are the most talented and arguably the most important players on the team. Martinez scores much more often, but Almiron defends at a high level, organizes the offense and he can destroy opposing defenses on counter attacks.
A season ago, Atlanta was without Almiron for three games when he suffered a hamstring injury. The club went 1-1-2 in that stretch.
But in 2017, they didn’t have Barco. If the young play-maker can regain his confidence and sharpness, the Five Stripes could survive Almiron’s absence unscathed.
“We all know Miguel is a very important player for this team and the team needs him. So, I just tried to go in and do what the coaching staff asked me,” Barco said. “The coach chooses the formation and we just try to make it work the best on the field.”