KENNESAW, Ga. — Early in his tenure as head coach of Atlanta United FC, Frank de Boer expressed supreme confidence in his team and its individual talents.
So, although the Five Stripes trailed by two goals in the aggregate, he was not shocked to see the Five Stripes completely outplay CS Herediano last Thursday at Fifth Third Bank Stadium to the tune of a 4-0 win.
What did stun him though, was how active Ezequiel Barco was in the match.
“Unbelievable,” de Boer said after the game. “I have to give a big compliment to him, because you see how many meters he’s covering… He was sprinting back after he was just sprinting (forward) 30 or 40 yards. It’s unbelievable.”
Atlanta’s Concacaf Champions League victory over Herediano was the best performance Barco has put forth in a while. His passes were crisp, his dribbles were creative, his effort on defense was admirable and the overall play of the Argentine was sharp.
Barco, 19, created a team-high four chances, put two of his three shots on-target, won a team-high three fouls, tallied a pair of assists and was accurate on 84.8 percent of his 46 passes.
“I thought we played very well against a tough team. We played together,” Barco said through a translator. “I feel good physically. We’re really happy with the result.”
A season ago, Barco arrived in Atlanta as a wide-eyed 18-year-old, and almost immediately was handed monumental and unrealistic expectations as to what he was supposed to accomplish in the league as a rookie. That’s what happens when one breaks the league’s record for a transfer fee, which was reported to be in the ballpark of $15 million.
At times, he appeared hesitant, like he was holding back. Sometimes, he looked immature. Fans bemoaned his lack of decisiveness in front of goal and yearned for the highlight-making plays they had seen Barco pull off in fuzzy videos on Twitter in an Independiente kit.
But while playing for the club in Avellaneda, Argentina, Barco was comfortable. Early on in Atlanta, it was evident that he was not. Again, this was a young man – a teenager – with lots of new money, in a new city, in a new country, with a new language, playing in a new league, for a new team, with a new manager, with new teammates. To say this was a big adjustment would be a massive understatement.
Barco suffered a right quad strain that forced him to miss the first five games of Atlanta’s regular season in 2018, but he impressed former manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino enough to win back a job in the Starting XI. Barco started 15 straight games after his injury, tallied four goals and an assist in that stretch, developed a knack for drawing fouls and was voted to the MLS All-Star team.
At that moment, it looked like Martino lost a bit of trust in Barco. In the final 16 games of Atlanta United’s 2018 campaign, including the playoffs, Barco started just five times and never scored again. In the postseason, as Atlanta made its run to the MLS Cup, he logged just 17 minutes on the pitch over five matches.
But 2019 came with a clean slate for Barco. A new manager with different ideas about development and tactics was coming in. There would also be more chances for Barco to create in the attack, as star midfielder Miguel Almiron was sold to Newcastle United.
“I think (de Boer) has given me a lot of confidence, and my teammates also, so I think that’s been really helpful for me,” Barco said. “We’re able to see that in the team’s performance on the field.”
De Boer came to Atlanta with perhaps an additional smidgen of patience and a little bit more knowledge in youth development than Martino had. Before becoming Ajax’s head coach nearly a decade ago, he worked in their youth academy system. As the club’s head coach, he was known for getting the most out of budding talent and then selling them off for high prices to other clubs in Europe. Players like Luis Suarez, Christian Eriksen, Jan Vertonghen, Daley Blind and Maarten Stekelenburg landed in the English Premier League and Italy’s Serie A after stints with de Boer at Ajax.
“Of course, we want (Barco) to be more decisive, but he’s still very young and he has to learn,” de Boer said.
Against Herediano, it seemed like Barco had improved his decisiveness. In the ninth minute, he had the ball for just a beat on the right wing, drawing a defender in, before turning and playing a ball perfectly to Julian Gressel, who scored on a right-footed blast thanks to Barco’s assist. In the 83rd minute of that match, Barco notched his second assist by crossing a ball into the box from the left flank, where it would connect with the head of Leandro Gonzalez Pirez for a goal.
The victory over Herediano marked Barco’s first multi-assist match of his tenure with Atlanta United.
“Ezequiel is a great player,” Gressel said. “It’s easy to play with him because he’s smart. He combines well, he passes well and always has the eye for the open man. It’s definitely nice to have him on the right side and be able to play with him.”
However, Barco also showed in that match that he still has room to improve. Twice, he was thwarted on goal-scoring opportunities. The first came just before halftime as Barco got loose on a breakaway and was one-on-one with Herdiano’s goalkeeper. But just before Barco reached the box, a defender caught him from behind and dispossessed him with a hard tackle.
Later, in the second half, Barco had another one-on-one opportunity, but was tackled from behind in the box.
“Last one was a penalty,” Barco said with a grin. “The first one, I think the defender got the ball.”
In Atlanta United’s MLS opener at D.C. United on Sunday, the Five Stripes fell 2-0, but Barco still impressed in some areas. While there were some times where he gave the ball away to defenders on a rain-soaked pitch, Barco still racked up 44 successful passes, won a tackle, drew two fouls and had a successful cross.
At Monterrey on Wednesday, the first leg of Atlanta’s Round of 16 match-up in the Concacaf Champions League, Barco seemed lost and ineffective at times, reminding fans and critics that he’s still a teenager and still has gaps in his game. Barco played a full 90 minutes, suffered four fouls in a physical game, completed 14-of-18 passes and tallied four ball recoveries. Atlanta was shellacked, falling 3-0 to the home side, Rayados.
Early on in the 2019 season, Barco seems poised for a bounce-back sophomore campaign in MLS. With the Five Stripes playing in several competitions, he’ll have more than a few chances to prove himself. And de Boer gives the impression of being invested in helping Barco grow and giving him opportunities to improve.
“(Barco) has to make goals in the future, but it all starts with this kind of mentality, with this kind of energy,” de Boer said. “I’m convinced when he gets stronger and more experienced in the situation he’s in, that he’s going to make goals and assists. I’m very happy for him.
“He’s looking very good. He can be a fantastic player.”