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River Plate, Atlanta United announce signing of Ezequiel Barco

The Argentine dynamo returns home.

MLS: D.C. United at Atlanta United FC John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Update 1/30: Atlanta United announced Ezequiel Barco’s loan Sunday night to officially make it official from both sides.

Atlanta United today announced it has loaned midfielder Ezequiel Barco to Club Atlético River Plate in the Argentina top flight for the 2022 season. Atlanta retains Barco’s contract rights beyond this season.

“Ezequiel has been an important part of our success over the last four seasons,” Atlanta United Vice President and Technical Director Carlos Bocanegra said. “He helped us win three trophies and is coming off the best season of his young career. We felt that this move made sense for both Ezequiel and the club and we wish him continued success during his loan at River Plate.”

Update 1/29: River Plate have announced the arrival of Ezequiel Barco. Atlanta United are yet to announce the move. We’ll update when that occurs.

After months of speculation about Ezequiel Barco’s future have swirled in the air among Atlanta United circles, the players move to River Plate that materialized in recent days seems to be nearing its conclusion. As we move closer to the deal becoming official, reports are trickling out about the state of play and details of the finances involved.

Firstly, according to reporting from Adriano Savalli, it seems that Barco is undergoing medical testing Wednesday morning (likely still occurring at the time of writing if the reports are accurate).

But more interesting is the finances of the deal that have been reported by Gastón Pestarino of

The report states that the purported loan deal will be for two years and include two separate options for River Plate to purchase 50% of Barco’s future value for $4 million a piece. That would put Barco’s total valuation in the deal at $8 million, a significant devaluation from his original purchase price by Atlanta from Independiente in 2018.

However, there’s no telling how appetizing those purchase options would be for River Plate executives, and the possibility still exists that neither are executed and Atlanta would have to work on a new deal altogether next year. Obviously, River’s interest will largely be dependent on 1) his performance for the team in 2022, and 2) how much interest he draws from rich European clubs based on that performance. If Barco plays well and River sees that he’s catching the eye of European clubs, they will have incentive to buy at least 50% of his future value, but only if they see his future price tag rising above the $8 million valuation on which this deal is predicated.

Atlanta United President Darren Eales spoke about the state of the transfer market with reporters January 19th, hinting at the difficulty clubs are having in recouping values prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. It certainly seems relevant to Barco’s situation, who was purchased at a premium with the hopes that value could soar given his extremely young age and talent when the club was courting him as early as 2017.

“[The transfer market] is certainly depressed,” Eales said. “Obviously I get a bit of perspective not only with Atlanta United, but with contacts of my former colleagues in England and with Aberdeen in the Scottish Premier League. [Covid] hit hard for clubs the whole world over. And naturally there was a reticence to spend as much [as before the pandemic]. So I think we’ve seen the market has gone down and I think it will bounce back. It always does. I think we’re seeing the sheets of that now. But I think we’re probably at least one more window, two more windows away from it getting back to the sort of levels we were at before covid hit. So it’s certainly depressed, but it’s a little like the housing market where there will be a depression where you don’t get as much as you hope for on the exit, but you probably get the players coming in at an equally lower value. So relative it probably stays the same.”

As for where the deal leaves Atlanta United, there are questions about whether a “loan” deal like this would actually free up a Designated Player slot. Personally, I would not worry about that, seeing that it would be a non-starter to send a productive player away while not freeing up said slot. It just wouldn’t make sense.

There doesn’t appear to be any specific language in the league’s roster rules and regulations (as of 2021) about the outgoing loans of Designated Players specifically. Pertinent lines from said regulations regarding all outgoing loan deals include:

Upon loaning a player, clubs will receive roster relief but not Salary Budget relief unless otherwise agreed to in the loan agreement.

If a Designated Player is transferred or loaned, the club will receive all amounts of the transfer or loan fee revenue until it has recouped all out-of-pocket cash payments made by the club in connection to that player prior to any sharing arrangement with the League. After such recoup, the club’s share of the revenue may be used to fund a club’s discretionary spend (e.g. player development costs, TAM Players, Designated Players, U22 Initiative Slot Player) or may be taken as cash and may not be taken as allocation. (Note: this section os only relevant to fees, but notice the league groups outgoing transfers/loans together here.)

And here’s the most important piece...

A club may loan any player from its Senior Roster or Supplemental Roster to a non-MLS club, subject to League discretion. During the loan period, the club will receive roster relief but not Salary Budget relief unless otherwise determined in the loan agreement.

If the player is recalled from his loan, the club must have an available roster slot in order for the player to be eligible for MLS League Season games.

If the loaned player is an International Player, then his replacement may be an International Player and occupy an international roster slot.

The most recent case study we have of a team attempting to manage to get rid of an unwanted Designated Player was in 2019 when the LA Galaxy opted to buy out Giovanni dos Santos’ contract after the team had bumped up Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s pay. In that case though, dos Santos was frankly such a poor player relative to his pay that the Galaxy likely could not find a single club that would take on his rich contract (he was the fifth highest-paid player in MLS the season prior to his buyout), even on loan.

Regardless, we are bound to find out the resolution to all of this shortly as the move appears to be close to completion.