Sunday’s match against New York City FC was notable for a couple of reasons. First off, fans saw VAR work against Atlanta United this week rather than for them as it did in the match versus LAFC. Second, it saw Atlanta’s unbeaten streak stretch to five matches, two short of tying the seven-match streak it set last season.
But the moment fans were anticipating the most came in the 69th minute, when the club’s new man - teenager? - Ezequiel Barco came in for Kevin Kratz to make his debut. MLS’s most expensive transfer played the remaining 21-plus minutes and did, well, OK.
Now, I understand that there are some fans that liked what they saw, and others that thought “Atlanta paid $15 million for that?” For the latter group, let’s keep a couple of things in mind:
- Ezequiel Barco’s 19. He literally just turned 19 a few weeks ago. He has - conservatively - 15 more years ahead of him. He’s not even hit his prime as of yet.
- He was coming off injury. He’d only been training for a few days beforehand, so I think Tata Martino’s decision to give him 20-25 minutes off the bench was a correct one.
I came away from Sunday’s match understanding part of the reason why Barco was so highly sought after. To me, he was good in possession and wasn’t afraid to go into the heart of the defense with it. You could see a few instances of his ability to make last-second cuts with the ball to keep the opposition on its toes.
However, Barco’s decision making was a little shaky at a couple of points in the match. In the 77th, as Barco makes a run up the left wing, you’ll see he has support behind him and in the middle as Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron enter the box; meanwhile, Greg Garza is out to his left. But as he goes right at Anton Timmerholm and Maxime Chanot, Timmerholm is able to step into the ball, leaving it to harmlessly roll to Sean Johnson.
In the 81st minute, Barco has a few options: Garza on the left, Julian Gressel wide on the right wing (calling for the ball) and Darlington Nagbe next to him as a safety valve. Instead of passing, though, he decides to first take on the NYCFC defender and then try the pass. Rodney Wallace is able to easily pick it out and end the threat.
Whether that was an over-willingness to please Tata Martino in his initial game action or a leftover tendency from his time at Independiente, that’s something that I’m sure will be corrected with time. At the same time, a 20-25 minute sample size is extremely small to make a complete judgment.
Regardless, Barco said after the match on Sunday that he was leaning on his teammates to help him along in his league debut, especially against a top side like NYCFC.
“It was a tough first game to come back to but my teammates helped me feel comfortable on the field,” he said, according to Atlanta United media relations. “Luckily, I was able to get some playing time with them today.”
“I feel good playing with Ezequiel,” said Miguel Almiron. “When he starts to play more and gets more confident, he’s going to be even better.”
I think Almiron nailed it - it’s all about confidence for Barco. Let’s revisit things within the next couple of months to see where he is in his progression. This much is for sure: the front office had to have seen something in Barco worth paying $15 million for, and for a group that has made very few missteps, I’m willing to trust their judgment.