Atlanta United lands Ezequiel Barco in record-breaking deal

Carlos Bocanegra, Atlanta United’s vice president and technical director, summed up his club’s offseason ambition best during November’s exit interviews: “It left everyone wanting more.”

Less than two months later, the burgeoning organization has followed its lofty aspirations to a record-breaking spending spree for a Major League Soccer club — highlighted by landing 18-year-old attacking midfielder Ezequiel Barco in a transfer deal with Club Atlético Independiente from Argentina’s Primera Division.

“Securing a player of Ezequiel’s caliber is another significant moment in Atlanta United history,” Atlanta United president and MLS Executive of the Year Darren Eales said in a statement. “This transfer further demonstrates the commitment of our club to bring top level, dynamic young players to Atlanta and to MLS. We are excited to welcome Ezequiel to our club and our city.”

The price tag is reportedly worth $15 million — the largest transfer fee in MLS history by a significant margin; Toronto FC paid FC Roma $10 million for U.S. international Michael Bradley in January 2017 — plus a percentage of any future transfer fees.

Barco is expected to be under contract through 2021 as young designated player.

“It speaks to the type of club that we’re becoming that Ezequiel chose to sign with our club over several European competitors,” Atlanta United vice president and technical director Carlos Bocanegra said. “As one of the top young players in South America who has been a fixture in the Argentinian youth national team setup, we’re elated that he’s decided to continue his career in Atlanta.”

After bursting onto the MLS scene by handing out lucrative deals to Miguel Almirón and Josef Martinez before their inaugural campaign, the Five Stripes landed standout midfielder Darlington Nagbe in December, sending a bundle of allocation money to the Portland Timbers (potentially worth a record-breaking $1.65 million) to add to what now appears to be the league’s premier attack.

Barco now becomes the crown jewel of a busy offseason for club president Darren Eales &  Co. — the move that could not only solidify Atlanta United as title favorites but one that sets a new gold standard for MLS acquisition practices.

A 5-foot-6 midfield phenom, the left-footed Barco scored eight goals in 57 appearances with Independiente before his 19th birthday, helping the senior club win the 2017 Copa Sudamericana by scoring the title-winning goal against Flamengo.

The move follows a trend for Atlanta United, dipping back into South America for premier young talent, specifically those sharing Argentinian roots with manager Tata Martino, with a sales pitch including an internationally respected coach, rabid fan base and world-class facilities.

Alongside Almirón, Martinez, Hector Villalba, Leandro González Pirez and two high-profile offseason additions in defenders Franco Escobar (Newell’s Old Boys) and José Hernández (Caracas FC), Barco fits the mold in Atlanta as a 25-and-under difference-maker.

Add in 2017 MLS Rookie of the Year Julian Gressel and it’s difficult to envision league defenses keeping Atlanta United — a group that finished second in scoring a year ago without Nagbe and Barco — in check.

Atlanta United was not satisfied with merely taking the league by storm and making the playoffs in its inaugural campaign. Based on the club’s record-breaking financial commitment to improving an already dangerous young roster, nothing short of becoming the league’s preeminent powerhouse will suffice.