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Ezequiel Barco has big shoes to fill

Yamil Asad was very important for Atlanta United in 2017

MLS: Los Angeles Galaxy at Atlanta United FC John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

With the Ezequiel Barco transfer novela now seemingly closed, we can actually talk about how he might fit in with Atlanta United. It might seem strange to say that for $15 million, the 18 year-old might not measure up to the player he is replacing on the roster, but that is the case for the new Atlanta attacker. Specifically, Barco will have a big hole to fill in the lineup, one that was occupied in 2017 by Yamil Asad. Not only that but if Atlanta is going to win MLS Cup, he will have to take on the challenge of surpassing Asad’s 2017 production.

Asad came on loan to Atlanta from Velez as an unknown quantity and made an immediate impact scoring the first goal in the pre and regular season. If he was impressive in his debuts, Asad was just getting started. As J. Sam Jones noted in his Final Exam, the midfielder was a top 20 player in MLS statistically. He started every game of the regular season and playoffs except for serving a pair of suspensions early in the season. Once he got control of his elbows, Asad proved himself to be one of the best players on Atlanta United. His numbers alone will be a lot to replace: 7 goals and 11 assists is something most players on the wing would be happy if not thrilled with, but Atlanta United clearly thinks Barco can do better.

Going deeper into Yamil’s contributions to the team show how brightly Barco will have to shine in order fill his shoes in 2018.

Simply put, Yamil Asad was a handful for opposing teams when he had the ball. First was his passing. Asad managed 1.7 key passes a game and as TiotalFootball pointed out, the attacking midfielder played with no fear and took a lot of risks with the ball. The thing is, those risks paid off quite a bit and Asad ended the year with the 8th most assists in MLS. This is a real testament to his vision and ability to pick a pass when Atlanta was in the attacking third.

Asad was such a problem for opposing defenders that many of them decided rather than look silly, they would just foul him. Despite not being the focal point of the Atlanta attack, Asad was fouled the second most of any player in MLS. That wasn’t always great as it seemed that sometimes he would try to draw a foul when another option was available to him, but it does show how much defenders had to respect his abilities on the ball.

Another part of his game that will be missed was his connection with Greg Garza. The Atlanta United attack was most effective when Garza and Asad were on the field at the same time. With Garza bombing down the field for an overlapping run to work a passing sequence with Yamil, the left side of the Atlanta attack was very difficult for defenses to contain.

Asad didn’t only have a great connection with Garza, though. One of the things that made Yamil so valuable was his versatility. This was a common point for players on the team with Tito Villalba at times playing center forward and Julian Gressel playing three positions during the season. Then there was Asad filling in at no. 10 to be that creative force on the team when Miguel Almiron was unavailable. This highlight exemplifies how Asad was such an asset in that role:

If you recall, Almiron was injured for the game against the Loons, and would have been away on international duty, so Asad filled in for the Atlanta United creator. Here, Atlanta forces a turnover on a sloppy pass from Minnesota and springs forward in transition. Asad gathers the ball and has six(!) Minnesota defenders close on him. He thinks of dishing to Tito, but seeing him offside, he thinks better of it. Asad then dances with the ball for a touch or two before seeing Gressel’s defender completely lose him giving him a chance to set up the rookie for a goal.

Going back to Asad’s Final Exam, there’s a lot more to his game than just being a good attacker. Yamil Asad was everywhere on the field in 2017. He covered a lot of ground and created a lot of turnovers in the process. From the left wing, Asad managed to be fourth on the team in tackles - he finished above center back Michael Parkhurst in tackles, from the left wing. That isn’t so much a knock on Parky as much as it is a testament to how singularly focused Asad was at winning the ball when Atlanta lost possession. In addition to the tackles stat, he also led the attacking Atlanta players in interceptions per game.

Atlanta United will be a different looking team than it was in 2017. Lost in the drama and hype around signing Barco is how truly important the Darlington Nagbe trade will be to the Five Stripes. Defensively he will help the team win back possession and once Atlanta has it, the central midfielder will help the team keep the ball. That said, having a winger who could do what Tata Martino asked Asad to do last year is rare and seeing if Barco can show the same dogged determination to make the ball his from that position will go a long way in determining if the Five Stripes are able to keep the defensive form they showed down the stretch in 2017 into next season.

None of this is to say that Barco won’t be as good or better, hopefully the case given his transfer fee, than Asad in whatever role Tata has in mind for him. He’s already shown a knack for getting assists:

And then there’s the other skills that he has to offer (the music is actually good for this one) - enjoy the 6 pack of nutmegs that this one starts off with:

This video gives a further idea of what Joe Patrick meant when he said, “His close control, maneuverability in tight spaces, range of passing, and thumping shots are exquisite” in his scouting report back in November. While Barco is coming into MLS with a lot of hype and a lot of promise, the role that Yamil Asad played for Atlanta United in 2017 will be difficult to match or go beyond. So far the team has excelled in surpassing expectations and will have to continue that trend with its latest signing.