Fifteen million dollars.
It’s the record-setting sum Atlanta United recently paid for the rights to Ezequiel Barco from Independiente in Argentina.
It’s a lot of money, in the proper context.
“Fifteen million in Europe, or anywhere else, is a snip these days,” Atlanta United midfielder Chris McCann said. “In MLS, it’s a big transfer fee.”
It could have a monumental impact on spending in MLS, in the proper context.
“If their goal is to be one of the top five leagues in the world, then absolutely,” Atlanta United midfielder Jeff Larentowicz said of such transfer fees becoming more frequent MLS transactions. “It also needs a bigger salary cap.”
It could also be an anchor on the player, unless the context is forgotten.
“I just want to do everything I can to enjoy it and be a champion with Atlanta,” Barco said about carrying the tag as the most expensive player in MLS history.
Of course, being the most expensive player in MLS history needs the proper context.
For many of the clubs in the leagues that MLS hopes to one day be considered as an equal, spending $15 million on a player doesn’t involve a lot of hand-wringing and wondering if the light bill can still be paid. More than 110 players cost at least that much in last year’s summer transfer window worldwide.
While Barco says the tag doesn’t bother him, it may be hard to overlook.
“Putting price tags on players that young can put a lot of weight on his shoulders, especially at Atlanta where we have lot of flair players, good players,” McCann said. “It’s a difficult one for him because all the eyes are going to be on him and expecting big things from him. I kind of think that’s unfair sometimes.
“You’ve got to give players time to settle in. It’s a new team, a new league. He’s going to need time to adjust and settle.”
Not only was the previous record transfer paid for a player (set either by Atlanta United for Miguel Almiron or Toronto for Michael Bradley, depending upon the report) far surpassed, it represents a potential new way for the teams in the league to do business. Imagine if Atlanta United is capable to developing Barco into an asset that can be sold for an even larger sum than it paid. MLS has next to no history of selling young internationals for bank vault-busting amounts to the bigger clubs in Europe. Montreal sold Ballou Tabla to Barcelona for an undisclosed fee in January. He was assigned to its B team. NYCFC transferred Jack Harrison to its parent club Manchester City. Harrison was immediately sent on loan to Championship side Middlesbrough, which was the plan. It’s not abnormal for big clubs in Europe to buy younger players and loan them out. Chelsea is notorious for the practice.
Several MLS teams entire payrolls don’t equal the $15 million transfer fee paid for Barco, whose individual salary has not been disclosed.
So what kind of player has Atlanta United bought for its $15 million?
Barco did not score or notch an assist in the first two preseason games. Those lack of impactful stats already started a churn of complaints on social media.
But Barco’s quality was established before he returned to North America for the first time since he was a boy. He led Independiente to the Copa Sudamericana tournament championship. He was listed among the top young talents in world soccer. His bona fides are real.
“He’s probably the biggest signing not just for us, but for the league,” Atlanta United manager Gerardo Martino said on Jan. 30, the day Barco arrived in the U.S. to join his new team. “It makes sense that people are talking about that.”
Though right-footed, Barco plays on the left so that he can cut inside and shoot. It’s a move made famous on the opposite side of the field by Arjen Robben with Bayern Munich.
Though short (he is listed at 5-foot-5), his upper body looks strong. That strength, combined with a low center of gravity, makes him hard to knock off the ball. He dribbles with his head up, which allows him to quickly find teammates.
“He’s slick,” Larentowicz said. “Speed of thought is there. You go to close him down and the ball’s already gone. He’s impressive with the ball, how quickly he does things.”
Defensively, he isn’t as polished with his tackling as some of his teammates, most of whom have spent at least a year in Martino’s system, which mandates an ability to close down and tackle opponents in an attempt to force mistakes.
Atlanta United captain Michael Parkhurst said Barco isn’t going to be the best player in MLS when the season opens on March 3.
“But he’s definitely going to be a contributor and be a very good player,” Parkhurst said. “We expect big things out of him.”
There’s no guarantee of that. There is a long list of players signed by teams in the league who were promised to be difference-makers only to see that talent never materialize.
But this may be the most important thing regarding Barco’s future and the level of his talent: he’s just 18 years old.
Imagine moving to a new country, immersed in a new culture, in a new league, on a new team, with new teammates playing a new system.
And trying to process all of that in three weeks.
“You have to remind yourself that he’s only 18,” Larentowicz said. “When I was 18, I was asking my dad for the car, not playing soccer at this level.
“He’s a very good player. He’s going to fit in once things get rolling.”