After a curiously extensive roster overhaul this offseason, Atlanta United enter the 2020 season a little underhanded. As such, this must be the year that Ezequiel Barco puts it all together.
For Atlanta United, being the best in Major League Soccer was always the expectation. While other teams may hope to be among the elite in the league, with Arthur Blank’s investment, a staggering new stadium, and a soccer culture in the city like few others in America, there was a different level of demand in Atlanta.
Thankfully, this insatiable desire has been satisfied. A very promising first season in MLS, an MLS Cup in their second year, and then a Campeones Cup and U.S. Open Cup in their third. And so, while the Five Stripes ultimately fell short in the playoffs as they looked to defend their MLS Cup, they still enjoyed a successful 2019.
But their preparations to be the best in 2020 have not run as smoothly. They have not had to replace a key designated player and the lynchpin of their team, admittedly, but there has been curiously significant roster overhaul throughout the offseason that leaves the squad a little thin.
Darlington Nagbe was the first to depart, a press-resistant central midfielder who was central to Frank de Boer’s possession-based play. Then Leonardo Gonzalez Pirez also left, the anchor of the defence alongside Miles Robinson, who is still young and inexperienced to be taking on the leading defensive role. And now Julian Gressel, arguably the most popular player at the club traded to D.C. United amid a contract dispute.
And none have sufficiently been replaced. Emerson Hyndman might play a more prominent role in central midfield, while Brooks Lennon will help replicate Gressel’s versatility. Fernando Meza arrives at centre-back to replace Gonzalez Pirez. But it is not the most convincing collection of transfers, that must be said.
And so, as Atlanta United again look to be a special team, they must lean further on their special players to take them there. Perhaps none are more crucial to this than Ezequiel Barco, who has shown brief glimpses of how impactful he can be without every quite producing at the level his talent suggests.
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Still only 20, Barco is a developing footballer. His talent is prestigious, but he is also improving. His primary issue thus far has been his lack of availability. He played only 15 regular season games last year thanks to injury problems and international duties. He scored four goals and added three assists, including four goals and one assist in his first seven starts before missing 13 matches through the middle of the campaign. Next year, though, Barco hopes for different:
"“It’s a new year I’m looking forward to turning that around and playing a lot.”"
He certainly has the qualities to produce like a high-level DP. His dribbling ability is superb, he is quick, sharp in his turning and short-area movements, and can score goals. His record with Gonzalo Martinez, another Atlanta United DP who is more talented than his 2019 production, is quite something. The pair only played seven regular season MLS games together. Atlanta won six of them and drew the other. In all competitions, including playoff games, they played in 16 matches. Atlanta won 12 of them and the pair combined for two goals and ten assists in those games.
If Atlanta United want to be the best, then, after a turbulent offseason that perhaps shows cracks in the previously odbiruate, impenetrable wall they will need their special players to step up. And none more so than Ezequiel Barco.