Editor’s Note: With so many opinions swirling about Atlanta United midfielder Ezequiel Barco, we felt it would only be fair for everyone on our staff (who choose to participate) to offer their takes. This post will serve as an open discussion for our group, and we encourage our readers to continue the discussion in the comments. Be civil and respectful to your fellow fan.
The Great Barco Schism is upon us. When I was publishing the “rate and react” post as the final whistle of the match blew Sunday night, I knew it would be bad for Barco, I just didn’t know how bad. I actually thought he was more-or-less fine, doing mostly good things mixed interspersed with the frustrating lapses in concentration/poor decisions in front of goal. But 3.93…. Damn. To be fair, he was pretty terrible after the penalty decision was given (but the whole team was also bad.)
While this simply illustrates the point of people’s severe frustrations with Barco, I don’t want us to solely focus on the last match or even the recent form. I want us to talk about the whole package here: his price tag, his hot start, the controversy he caused and how it’s affecting him, the poor form, and what we should expect out of him.
To kick off the discussion, I’ll talk about his price. $15 million is a lot of money. And sure, you obviously want to see a return on the field with that investment you make. But transfer fees are not simply a performance metric. There are lots of factors that went into Barco’s fee, one of them biggest being—at 18 years of age at the time of purchase— he will almost assuredly improve as a player over the course of his contract. Independiente were not dumb and made sure to have that baked into his price. MLS is weird in that it hasn’t paid very high transfer fees, and especially not on young players. To put Barco’s sale into context, his price would rank as the 108th highest transfer this summer alone, wedged between (more experienced) players Gerard Deulofeu and Matej Vydra. So while he’s “the most expensive transfer in league history,” the context is really important to consider here.
Joe, why does everyone keep saying $15 million. He costs the team $150K in cap space as a Young Designated Player (remember?). Unless Arthur Blank owes you money, the $150K budget charge is the price tag that matters for supporters. He costs less than Kevin Kratz. Ezequiel Barco costs Atlanta United less than Kevin Ellis costs the Chicago Fire. Kevin Ellis was waived by the Chicago Fire on August 9th.
Barco’s introduction to the world of soccer outside Argentina has been…well, eventful, shall we say. For an 18-year-old suddenly thrust into the limelight in a foreign country where he doesn’t speak the language and has a lot more money than he ever has before, problems, both on and off the pitch, are not surprising.
That being said, the totality of his performances on the pitch to date has been pretty good. Prior to Sunday’s game he had averaged a community rating of 7.09 over 16 starts and a staff rating of 7.23 over 15 starts. That puts him 6th and 3rd respectively among players with at least 10 starts. He is also tied with Tito Villalba for 3rd on the team in goals scored, and only Josef Martinez and Kevin Kratz (who has just 2 free kick goals) have higher scoring percentages than Barco’s 21.1%.
There is no question that his showing against DC was poor, at least in the second half. But then, the whole team stank the joint up in that half. Was he significantly worse than anyone else? Worse, probably, but not by a wide margin.
Another issue is whether he is being played in his best position. In the last two games especially, and over the season as a whole, he has tended to drift very close to Miguel Almiron, such that their average positioning is nearly identical. He may be better suited as a #10 than as an outside midfielder. Demonstrating that is an opportunity he is unlikely to get this season. Next year may be a different matter.
Here’s my thing with Barco: I don’t know if it’s a matter of confidence with him, if he’s still young and unsure of himself in a new league, or if it’s pressure to perform due to the price tag Atlanta United paid for him. When I asked Tata Martino about it after the D.C. match on Sunday, he mentioned that it wasn’t something that he wasn’t worried about when put up against the performance of the team as a whole. That’s fair.
I think that in American sports, fans immediately want to point to a scapegoat when something goes wrong. And while in some instances blame is justified, a lot of times it’s not, and fans have a tendency to point fingers to a specific person or persons (especially here in the age of social media). In this case, Barco ended up being that person. With seven matches (and the playoffs) remaining, I’d love to see which version of Barco emerges, especially coming out of the international break - and even far beyond that. If we’re still having this discussion a year from today, well, that might be the time to take about return on investment.
The polarization surrounding Ezequiel Barco seems unavoidable. But the debates we’re having say more about us as fans than the player himself. At just 19-years of age, Barco is not the completed product, and he deserves time to grow. And while improvement is clearly needed for a player of such expectations, Barco is already contributing heavily to United, and increasingly one of the team’s most important players.
Barco’s production shows in the numbers. As a winger, Barco gets on the ball and contributes to the attack as heavily as any attacking player in the league. He leads MLS in xG-Chain and leads Atlanta United in chances created per appearance. Barco is also highly efficient those many times he is on the ball, completing the highest percentage of his passes amongst United’s wide players by a long shot.
Our tendency to single out Barco while he produces at an equal, or better, rate than right winger Tito Villalba speaks volumes. For reference, Barco is dispossessed at a virtually identical rate to Villalba. Despite this, Barco averages far more touches per match than Tito and attempts more than twice as many passes per match. Perhaps the amount of time Barco spends in possession keeps him fresh in our minds, making it more difficult to ignore his shortcomings.
Barco’s expensive price tag justifiably comes with high expectations. But United’s refusal to sell Miguel Almiron when his value will perhaps never be higher is telling. United’s braintrust knew that like most 19-year olds, Barco’s price tag was predicated on him developing and improving over time. Quite clearly, Tata Martino and co. knew that it would take a year, even two, for Barco to be “the man” in the final third. Otherwise, why not at least entertain the interest in Almiron?
Let’s make a few things clear. Ezequiel Barco is a talented soccer player. There’s no debating this. To say he’s not is a slap in the face to those who bought him for the much talked about $15 million transfer fee. He’s not getting criticism, at least from me, for his talent levels.
Advanced metrics say he’s a great build-up player and I have no argument against this. My point of view is simple. Designated Player slots in MLS are extremely valuable. Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron pull their weight and then some. It’s only human nature to wonder how good Atlanta United would be with three DPs performing as they should.
For me, Barco is a fine supporting player. Again, his xG-Chain proves that. But, for as much as he is valued on the transfer market and the role he was brought in to play, him being a supporting player instead of an impact player is not good. His inability to make a true impact on a game is my biggest issue so far. He rarely is able to dribble past players or create his own shot like we all expected. Sure, he makes the simple plays well, helps the team keep possession, and creates some chances but that’s why the team traded for Darlington Nagbe.
Yes, he’s 19 and hopefully for the club’s sake he grows and lives up to his potential in a year or two. But for a team trying to capitalize on the greatest striker the league’s ever seen and Miguel Almiron being here a little while longer, Barco has been disappointing. It should also be noted that soccer is a fickle sport and hanging your opinion on potential and what could be in the future is a fool’s errand. So, yes his transfer fee is going to continue to be brought up. You can’t realistically expect patience with the most expensive player in the history of MLS, especially when that player isn’t a real danger to opposing teams without relying on others to provide the final product.
J. Sam Jones
I’VE NOTICED THAT THESE TYPES OF #HOTSPORTSDISCUSSIONS ARE USUALLY WON NOT BY ELOQUENT DISCOURSE INVOLVING RELEVANT POINTS AIDED BY FACT, BUT BY THE PERSON WHO IS, UNEQUIVOCALLY, THE LOUDEST. I’LL BE FRANK AND SAY THAT I’M NOT REALLY SURE THIS IS MEANT TO BE A COMPETITION, BUT I CAN’T TAKE THE RISK THAT IT’S NOT FOR FEAR OF SEEMING WEAK.
SPEAKING OF WEAK, THE IDEA THAT BARCO IS BAD AND NOT WORTH HIS TRANSFER VALUE IS WEAK, YO. BUT I UNDERSTAND THE FRUSTRATION. HE’S A PLAYER WHO, ALL AT ONCE, IS OBJECTIVELY PRODUCTIVE AND OPTICALLY INFURIATING. HIS PASSING LEADS TO CHANCES BUT HIS RELUCTANCE TO TAKE RISKS WITH THROUGH BALLS AND CREATE CHANCES THAT ARE BOTH HIGH PERCENTAGE AND AESTHETICALLY ENCOURAGING IS ONE PART OF A COLLECTION TRAITS THAT PLACE EZEQUIEL BARCO’S SKILLSET INTO A SOCCER GREY AREA WHERE BOTH CASUAL AND INTELLECTUAL OBSERVERS ARE LEFT SAYING, “I THINK HE’S GOOD, BUT I’M NOT ENTIRELY SURE HE’S GOOD, BUT THEN AGAIN, I’M ABSOLUTELY POSITIVE HE’S GOOD.”
HIS STATS POINT TO HIM BEING INFLUENTIAL IN CONSISTENTLY POSITIVE WAYS, BUT BARCO FAILS THE EYE TEST JUST AS OFTEN. UNTIL HE PASSES THAT TEST, THAT PRICE TAG WILL HANG OVER HIS HEAD AND THE SHADOW WILL ONLY GROW WITH EVERY ERRANT SIDEWAYS PASS. THE GOOD NEWS IS THAT HE’S 19 AND HAS PLENTY OF ROOM AND, MOST IMPORTANTLY, THE CAPABILITY TO IMPROVE DRASTICALLY. IT’S HIGHLY LIKELY HE’S PUTTING UP THE STATS AND THE HIGHLIGHTS TO MATCH HIS PRICE TAG BY THE TIME HE LEAVES THE A.
The signing of Ezequiel Barco by Atlanta United was made with both the short and long term in mind. Obviously expectations are high for the club this season and Barco will be expected to contribute regularly during Atlanta’s playoff run, but it’s the short term mindset of fans that instigates a toxic opinion of a player who the club views as a centerpiece for 2-3 seasons to come.
People who already claim that Barco wasn’t worth the $15 million price tag are missing a key point and mission of Atlanta United, an aspect that has helped give them such quick success. Darren Eales and the rest of the front office are looking ahead for the long-term future when acquiring young, talented players like Miguel Almiron, Josef Martinez, Tito Villalba, and yes, Ezequiel Barco. The $15 million is an investment in a player full of untapped potential who is still figuring things out and just needs more time than perhaps most of us expected. The club’s plans for these players do not live and die in less than a season. No good investment does, and nor should our opinions of those investments.