The score is 1-0 in the mythic Maracanã Stadium and Flamengo are in the lead in the 2017 Copa Sudamericana final against Argentine club Independiente. A penalty is called in favor of El Rojo de Avellaneda, and who steps up to take it? 18-year-old Ezequiel Barco, he buries it and right there in the silence of the Flamengo supporters, Atlanta United know they have found their man.

Ezequiel Barco’s arrival to MLS was a rollercoaster ride, a transfer saga and eventually he would become the league's second highest import. Atlanta United paid $13.5 Million for the Argentine youth international. To say that Barco’s first three seasons in MLS were a disappointment is an understatement, the surprise great game was lumped together with often lackluster performances, injuries, and a disciplinary hiatus under Tata Martino.

Under Frank de Boer, Barco did little to shine, under Gabriel Heinze he was gone when the former Velez manager was sacked, now under Gonzalo Pineda it’s a whole new Barco. The now 22-year-old has scored or assisted on 11 of Atlanta United’s past 17 goals. What’s behind Barco’s turnaround? Find out here.

Ezequiel Barco’s 2021 turnaround

In an article written by Atlanta Journal Constitution journalist Doug Roberson, Barco is a happy man. “I’m very happy in Atlanta… with the team and the whole coaching staff, I’m very happy and in a good moment where I’m happy. It was tough for me to find happiness in Atlanta, and today, as I said, my teammates and all the people at the club are helping me to be comfortable, calm and with confidence.”

Of all of Atlanta United’s biggest imports it has been Barco who seemed to struggle the most, despite the flashes of brilliance Barco never dominated MLS play as the player who scored the game winning goal for Independiente in the Copa Sudamericana final. In fact, Barco despite all his ups and downs was still called into the Argentine youth squads and made the Summer Olympic roster. Given how things were going in MLS it was the five stripes only bet to sell Barco for a fee remotely close to what they paid for him in 2018.

For many pundits seeing Barco play so under his potential led to speculation that lighting may not strike twice and that a possible suitor for the silky midfielder might be hard to come by. Given the idea was to sell Barco for a high rate to Europe. Unlike Pity Martinez, Atlanta United’s other disappointing DP signing, a team from Saudi Arabia paid $18 million for the underachieving former South American player of the year. Unless a deal like that would come in, the chances Barco could go for over $20 million was wishful thinking. Or to sell him to a top European club, like has been the clubs intention looked remote as well.  A far cry from the $27 million paid for Miguel Almirón by Newcastle United of the Premier League.

“I’ve been preparing myself to be well physically and mentally and able to help the team in the best way I can,” Barco said, and it shows his 2021 season has seen him play 17 games, score 7 goals and provide a career high 6 assists as Atlanta United continue to climb the standings. At this rate Barco could very well be in line to be the league’s comeback player of the year.

Barco, who signed a long-term deal with Atlanta United is the next player the club would like to sell to Europe and recuperate their initial big-time investment. In total Barco has played 73 MLS games and has 17 goals and 15 assists, not bad for a young player in his early 20’s but at times below average production from a player many had dubbed one of the best under-20 players in the world just two seasons ago and hailing from the land of Lionel Messi.

Along with Miles Robinson, Santiago Sosa, and George Bello, Barco is again on a team that is hot and climbing the standings, only two points away from third place in the East, all four of those young players can not only help their team but showcase their talents to move on to bigger and better things in Europe, another part of the Atlanta United equation.

Until then, finally the Barco has docked at the port, and it is finally looking like the luxury ship that was supposed to elevate Atlanta United.