The paperwork was approved by MLS around 1:45 p.m., just as the second round of the SuperDraft was starting in the Ballroom of the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia.
With that, after five months of negotiations, Atlanta United signed Ezequiel Barco, set a new record for an MLS transfer and wrapped up what club president Darren Eales described as the toughest deal he’s ever put together. This from a man who negotiated a 100-million Euro deal for Gareth Bale in 2013.
“It was difficult because we thought we’d reach agreements, and the goal posts kept moving,” Eales said. “I get that. If I’m on the other side, I will fight for a player like this. I respect Independiente. We got a win-win deal.
“It’s exciting for Atlanta United fans, exciting for the club and exciting for the league.”
Eales wouldn’t confirm the price that the Five Stripes paid for the 18-year-old phenom, but did say the reported transfer fee of $15 million was “in the ballpark.” That’s by far the most ever paid by an MLS team for a player.
Why was the deal so tough? What made negotiating with Independiente for Barco tougher on Eales than Real Madrid when Tottenham Hotspur was looking to sell Bale?
Here’s a look at how the deal, which seemed dead several times and at times could be either described as dynamic or nasty, or some combination, went down, according to several people who were involved:
Go back five months to the MLS All-Star game in August in Chicago. That’s when Atlanta United and Barco first made contact.
Barco was one of 5-6 players in South America who fit a certain profile that the team was interested in getting to know.
A few members of Atlanta United’s front office set up a trip in September to South America to meet those players.
The sides, which includes two agents representing Barco, Independiente’s board of as many as nine people and Atlanta United, began talking.
Sometimes they wouldn’t talk for a week or two.
Strangely, Atlanta United manager Gerardo Martino, a legend in Argentina, wasn’t involved in the discussions. He said once the player made it known that he wanted to come, the answer could be found in the details of the contract.
Atlanta United flew back in November to meet with Barco and for him to undergo a physical. At that point, Barco said he wanted to join Atlanta United and MLS.
An agreement was reached.
But then Barco went and scored a goal on a penalty kick to secure the championship of the Copa Sudamericana on Dec. 13. If Barco hadn’t scored, he may have become an Atlanta United player weeks ago.
Independiente suddenly decided that Barco was undervalued. While the club back-tracked, Barco stayed true to his pledge, even as discussions grew complicated because of the number of people involved.
There were many times a day that Atlanta United thought the deal was dead or decided that they were approaching a line on fees or some other contract clause that they wouldn’t cross.
But one thing kept the talks going: Barco wanted to come to Atlanta United. And the team loved the player not only because of what he can do on the field, but because of the type of person they say he is.
Eventually, Barco had had enough of what seemed like an endless negotiation-loop and stopped training with Independiente.
A finish line could be seen.
Still, after five months, it’s not done until it’s done.
Eales sent out a cryptic tweet Monday that hinted by referencing a Shakespearean sonnet that news would soon happen.
Next, Martino told a radio station in Peru on Tuesday that the player had signed.
Barco did actually sign, but not until Thursday.
The papers weren’t sent by Independiente until Friday.
At 2:20 p.m., the deal was announced.