Interim head coach Rob Valentino’s assessment of Ezequiel Barco after Wednesday’s victory over Toronto FC is a testament to Barco’s industrious effort. Since the midfielder returned to the club from representing Argentina at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, he’s had a remarkably productive month that’s led Atlanta United to three straight wins and, as of Thursday, three straight honors for Barco on the MLS Team of the Week.
“I feel good on the field, both tactically and physically,” Barco said. “But this is just getting started, we’re starting to win after a long time and we have to stay on this path to achieve more things.”
During August, Barco has manufactured three goals, including the game-winner against Toronto FC on Wednesday. Brooks Lennon sent a ball over the top of the Toronto defense that Barco brought down and controlled. He made a few cuts 1-v-1 against defender Eriq Zavaleta until he created enough space to take a shot off his left foot. The ball caught a deflection and curled into the upper corner of the net to put Atlanta ahead 1-0 in the 20th minute.
“We watched a lot of their games and they’ve conceded chances from balls over the top and in behind,” Lennon said. “So, as soon as Barco took off and made that run, I had to play him because he was going to be wide open. I was glad to connect with him and happy that he was able to get the goal.”
Atlanta United’s lone goal in the win over LAFC on Sunday also came by way of a long ball to Barco’s feet, this time from midfielder Marcelino Moreno. The pass bounced off the laces of a Los Angeles defender toward the direction of L.A.’s goal. Barco ran the ball down then delivered a cross to Josef Martínez who put it away. It was his first goal at Mercedes-Benz Stadium this season, a feat he celebrated by immediately pointing to Barco and running over to give him a hug.
“I have four goals, but all four were away,” Martínez said on Sunday. “Today, it’s more because I like to play against the good teams with an amazing crowd, amazing fans, so it’s a little bit special. I wanted to score so bad, but the most important are the three points.”
While Barco has created chances for his team on the attacking end, his more quiet contribution has been getting back to defend. Valentino illustrated Barco’s efforts using an example from the Columbus match. Valentino said he witnessed Barco pick up the ball, counterattack about 50-60 yards, lose the ball, then sprint the 50-60 yards to get back in position for someone else.
“The kid works,” Valentino said. “And now he’s adding production to it. It’s good to see. I hope he keeps growing, I hope he keeps pushing because he wants to be better, he has big aspirations. And I hope we can help him be a part of that.”
The effort has shown up on the box score as well. Barco’s passing accuracy has exceeded 80 percent in every game in August so far. Over the past three matches, he’s shot 10 times, five on target. He led the club in touches (83) and total passes (64) in Columbus on August 7. He played the full 90 minutes for each game since he returned to the club from his call-up.
Whether it’s scoring goals or running back to defend, Barco’s effort has led to production -- and more production from the central midfielder will not only build confidence for himself but also, as he puts it, for the team:
“My teammates make me feel good on the field, the coaching staff gives me the freedom to move across the attack and that gives me a lot of confidence and to be able to help the team.”