A sea change has taken place in world football, with one of the hottest young talents in Argentina choosing MLS rather than Europe
In years to come people may look back on the way new MLS franchise Atlanta United went about their early business and see it as a watershed moment in the history of football in the United States.
Not content with breaking attendance records and becoming only the fourth team in the 25-year history of MLS to make the playoffs in an expansion season, The Five Stripes have now pulled off one of the most remarkable transfer coups in history with talented teenager Ezequiel Barco joining the ranks.
Argentina has been football’s number one exporter of world class talent since the 1920s.
Europe would take the cream of the crop leaving MLS clubs usually in the market for players a level below that or at an advanced stage in their careers where opportunities have perhaps passed.
Atlanta United, however, have had other ideas and approached their maiden season with almost unparalleled ambition. Former Argentina manager Gerardo Martino was at the helm and the club utilised his knowledge of the South American market and some astute scouting to bring in Paraguayan All-Star Miguel Almirón, Venezuelan goal machine Josef Martínez, speed-merchant Héctor Villalba and Vélez youngster Yamil Asad among others.
An outstanding debut campaign ended with Atlanta finishing fourth overall in the MLS standings before losing in the playoffs to Columbus Crew on penalties but has left the club hungry for more.
The rumours of a move for Independiente youngster Ezequiel Barco towards the end of 2017 seemed a step too far after the Argentinian giants had already rejected advances from Benfica and Zenit St. Petersburg.
Llegaste como un chico. Te formaste en la pensión y te vas como un hombre campeón.
Todo pasa, la gloria es eterna.
¡Gracias y éxitos, Ezequiel!#TodoRojo ? pic.twitter.com/37EhUPVfUr
— C. A. Independiente (@Independiente) January 12, 2018
The greatest talent out of the club since Sergio Agüero looked destined for Europe and the only question was how much money Independiente could milk from the situation.
As Atlanta United discovered that price tag went up swiftly before Barco’s non-appearance for preseason training forced a breakthrough in talks and eventually an agreement was struck.
Tata Martino’s side will pay Independiente $15 million plus 30 percent of any future transfer before the end of 2019, a fee that smashes the MLS record from when Toronto FC paid $10 million for Michael Bradley in 2013.
The 18-year-old may not have signed his proposed five-deal with Atlanta United but Independiente have already said their goodbyes, writing on their Twitter account: “You arrived as a kid. You grew in the youth team and you leave as a champion. Everything ends, glory is eternal. Thank you and success, Ezequiel!”
Atlanta United successfully signing one of the brightest prospects in world football from Argentina represents a major change of route for young players and if successful could change the market completely.
The money on offer in the United States is able to tempt players away and as Atlanta United have now proved it’s also able to compete with Europe for transfer fees, making cash-strapped Argentinian clubs even more vulnerable. MLS clubs can provide far greater salaries, an improving level of football and in the case of a young player like Barco, do so without closing the door on European football.
Independiente were reluctant to sell, particularly after Barco’s inspirational display to help the club lift the Copa Sudamericana but manager Ariel Holan admitted, “It hurts, but Independiente need to sell two or three players.”
The reason that hurt became all the more apparent was after Barco tormented Flamengo and cooly slotted in the decisive penalty in the famous Maracaná to hand El Rojo a first major title since 2010.
That #5StripeFriday Feeling!!!
— Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) January 12, 2018
That performance proved to be Barco’s crowning moment and whether it was Atlanta United or a higher-bidding European club, as Independiente had hoped, it was always likely to be the youngster’s last for the club.
Since being handed his debut by Gabriel Milito in August last year the pint-sized playmaker has been dazzling the locals at the Estadio Libertadores de América with his quick feet, love of a nutmeg and incisive passing.
But it could have easily have been so different after a young Barco travelled to Buenos Aires from his home close to Rosario for trials with a number of different clubs and it was only after Boca Juniors, River Plate and a host of others told the boy he was too small that Independiente took a chance.
Barco’s potential was swiftly identified and in no time Gabriel Milito had him training with the senior squad. Despite being rushed into action the 17-year-old’s impact was immediate and within the last year has gone from hugely promising academy talent to instrumental member of the starting eleven.
There is no doubting that at times Barco lacks composure and end product, certainly in front of goal. He can also be guilty of trying too much, always looking for a killer pass or to beat two or three defenders but this has only been exacerbated by the demands of the team and at times, El Rojo looking to the teenager for inspiration.
Going full ? for four @ATLUTD matches this season:
March 11 | D.C.
June 30 | Orlando City
July 15 | Seattle Sounders
September 22 | Real Salt Lake
Who's excited?! ? #MBStadium pic.twitter.com/ukaPrSW5LU
— MercedesBenzStadium (@MBStadium) January 11, 2018
Not one to shy away from this responsibility, Barco seems impervious to pressure and scored twice from the spot against Flamengo despite his miss against Lanús costing Independiente a place in the Copa Libertadores at the end of the earlier season.
Barco’s star had shone too brightly and a move was inevitable and while Atlanta might be a surprise destination, it could be the final piece in Tata’s jigsaw to go even further. The club have already signed Darlington Nagbe and Greg Garza in addition to youngsters Franco Escobar and José Hernández and after their impressive 2017, the Five Stripes will be among the favourites.
If Barco could prove to be the catalyst to Atalanta United lifting the title, it would be a huge success for all parties. A championship and a profit for the MLS club, further experience and a European move for Barco and even more money for Independiente.
That’s the dream and if it is fulfilled, expect plenty more MLS clubs to start looking for the next Barco.