An unusually high number of TVs in the Atlanta area spent Wednesday night tuned to Fox Deportes to watch the Copa Sudamericana between Independiente of Argentine and Flamengo of Brazil. The game was insanely entertaining but that was nothing more than a bonus for the fans. The main event was 90 minutes of Ezequiel Barco: the man many people think is the future of Atlanta United. Make no mistake, Barco is a rare talent but Atlanta closing in on him is about more than just one player.
After Atlanta was eliminated from the playoffs there were many questions about how they’d move forward, especially with some key players on loan and concerns about stars being bought by teams overseas. Atlanta’s front office made it clear from the day they hired Tata Martino that they planned to pursue talent in South America. What we’ve learned from rumors over the last year – and more specifically the last few weeks – is that they’re setting their sights higher than many ever anticipated.
Atlanta kicked things off by reportedly dropping almost $2 million for 20-year-old Lucas Rodriguez. More recently Atlanta has been tied to the previously mentioned Ezequiel Barco. At just 18 years old, Barco would be taking the pursuit of young talent to a whole new level. The front office is now out there trying to swoop in and win races against established European clubs for talent. It would be the second time Atlanta has snatched a player out of South American for (reportedly) eight figures with the intent to set him loose on MLS and sell him for a substantial profit down the road.
Atlanta grabbing Almiron was one thing but it was possible at one point to shrug and draw a connection between Almiron’s childhood and the chance to play for a legend in his hometown. Surely they wouldn’t do it again, right? I mean Josef Martinez was out of favor in Turin and needed a landing place and Yamil Asad was a loan for a player that had disappointed at a club where he felt all the pressure in the world. Even Villalba wasn’t considered in the world-class category that Almiron and Barco are.
All of that being said, Atlanta even being in the conversation for Barco makes this a trend and a very fun one. It was always one thing to say that Atlanta wanted young and exciting players. It was another to actually go out there and get the wheels turning for earth-shattering moves.
A lot of this can be chalked up to Tata Martino and the influence and knowledge he has of the game in South America. That being said, Arthur Blank being so willing to open the purse strings so early in the process and trust the front office that has been put in place (including the scouting network which deserves so much credit for their work since day one) has cleared the road for more moves like this.
Barco could be a huge get with an absurd return down the road for Atlanta United. Transfer rumors can make Schrodinger’s Cat look like a sure bet, so don’t go printing up your jerseys until someone is literally holding up that shirt at a press conference. More importantly, it means Atlanta has ripped down the ‘Now Open’ sign above their operations. The establishment is up and running and the proverbial neighborhood knows. They’re in the business of bringing in the best of the best. There will surely be misses and there will probably be more Oscar Romero-like situations where Atlanta is outbid. Those things will happen but Atlanta’s ambition and success in luring potential international stars to MLS isn’t going away. It’s just getting started.