Being the ‘next big thing’ in soccer is always difficult. A lot of times, the most hyped-up prospects flame out before they reach the potential scouts and fans assigned them. Atlanta United’s Ezequiel Barco, once considered one of the crown jewels of the Argentina youth setup and destined for future European stardom, enters the 2021 season facing a crossroads.
In late 2017 everything was going right in the lives of both Atlanta United and their future Designated Player. The Five Stripes were in the midst of a wildly successful inaugural season that would see them become one of the first expansion clubs to make the playoffs. Meanwhile, Barco was busy leading his childhood club to a Copa Sudamericana title. Behind the scenes, the two parties were working on what would become one of, if not the most important, transfers in MLS history at the time. A club of Atlanta United’s status securing the services of one of the top young players in the entire world for the largest transfer fee in league history was monumental. The stage was set for a brand new era of transfers that Darren Eales, Carlos Bocanegra and company paved the way for. All the plan needed to succeed was for Barco to fulfill his end of the deal. Play well, get better, win a trophy or two and head to Europe for a big fee.
Fast forward to the present and Barco has faced his fair share of adversity since arriving in Atlanta. Both on the field and off of it. To say the 21-year-old has been bad during his time in MLS would be disingenuous. However, it’s also fair to say he hasn’t lived up to his potential or the mega transfer fee the club shelled out to sign him. While it’s true that injuries and international duty have hampered his ability to stay on the field consistently, he’s also struggled with making an impact when he has been able to play.
It hasn’t all been negative. He’s shown several glimpses of being the blue-chip prospect that was promised. Most notably early in the 2019 and 2020 seasons when he strung together several top individual performances that left you optimistic that the talent had begun to shine through. Unfortunately, on both occasions, those runs of form were derailed through various means that included a Josef Martinez ACL tear, a trip to the U-20 World Cup, and a global pandemic.
Atlanta’s dream of buying him for a premium price, honing his tremendous talent, and selling him to a European superclub for a massive profit seems all but dead at this point. The grandiose rumors linking him to such clubs as Arsenal and Manchester United have died a quick death after his inconsistency and struggles over the past three seasons. Even the somewhat believable reports linking him to more modest outfits like Fiorentina or Sevilla have disappeared.
The 2021 season is not only a chance at a resurgence for Atlanta United but could possibly be the last opportunity for Ezequiel Barco to prove to the world that he’s capable of living up to the label of ‘next big thing’. With Gabriel Heinze entering the picture, Barco now has a young Argentine manager who he can relate to. This upcoming season feels like a make-or-break situation as far as Atlanta’s chances of seeing some return on its investment. With the club having so much at stake in Barco’s future transfer fee, you can bet they have given Heinze the task of building the youngster’s value back up to respectable levels.
It remains to be seen where exactly Barco will fit into Heinze’s system. But it’s a safe assumption that he’ll be an integral part of his initial plans. While the technical staff has been hard a work recruiting plenty of reinforcements to strengthen the roster for Heinze’s arrival, the majority of the big signings have been focused on the backline and midfield. It’s true that Josef Martinez's return will be a big help, but Barco’s form will have a major impact on how the new manager’s first season plays out.
There’s still hope for Barco of making his dream European move. Just as there’s hope of Atlanta United making some kind of profit off their then-record-setting transfer fee. However, both of those scenarios require Barco to finally become the player everyone expected him to be and to be that player on a match-to-match basis. If he thrives under Heinze and becomes the impactful attacking threat that Atlanta United needs this season then all of the avenues to Europe open back up and he can go on to have a very successful career. If he continues to mire in this weird Bermuda Triangle of injuries, poor performances, and general malaise that has plagued him since his arrival, then he may suffer the same fate of so many promising young and talented prospects before him.