Atlanta's Ezequiel Barco signing is a watershed moment for MLS

Ezequiel Barco scored for Independiente in the second leg of the 2017 Copa Sudamericana final against Flamengo. (Getty)
Ezequiel Barco scored for Independiente in the second leg of the 2017 Copa Sudamericana final against Flamengo. (Getty)

Set in the context of the international transfer market, $15 million still doesn’t amount to a lot.

After all, when Neymar joined Paris Saint-Germain from Barcelona last summer, the transfer fee was a dumbfounding $272 million. And this winter transfer window alone, there have been nine transfers for at least $15 million – fees that don’t include salary, image rights, signing bonuses or agent commissions – topping out with Philippe Coutinho’s $147 million move from Liverpool to Barca, ostensibly to succeed Neymar.

Yet Atlanta United’s $15 million move for Ezequiel Barco, which was finally consummated on Friday after weeks of speculation and false starts, nevertheless feels like a watershed moment for Major League Soccer.

For one, the fee smashes the league’s record of about $9.2 million laid out by, yes, Atlanta for Miguel Almiron a year ago. That transfer was a shade richer than what Toronto FC had paid for Michael Bradley and Jermain Defoe before the 2014 season. That’s how MLS transfer records had progressed. The amounts were always marginally above the previous high-water mark. And they were invariably for established and famous players.

The Barco transfer lays waste to that trend.

If the amount doesn’t blow you away because you’ve paid a modicum of attention to the market over in Europe, it’s an eye-watering outlay by MLS standards. Although the salary cap will be a hair over $4 million in 2018, teams can spend at least double that thanks to their Targeted Allocation Money and General Allocation Money kitties. Some will spend several multiples of the salary cap once you count their Designated Player surcharges.

Still, $15 million will amount to more than the entire payroll of the vast majority of teams. In 2017, only Toronto and New York City FC spent more than that – and the latter will probably dip below that amount now that the newly retired Andrea Pirlo is off the books. Consider that PSG’s payroll is believed to be about $385 million, and Atlanta’s expenditure is every bit as enormous on a relative scale – if not more so. It’s likely more than it will spend on salaries this year.

But neither of these things is entirely the point.

The Barco transfer represents a watershed for other reasons.

For one, he is 18 and won’t turn 19 until a few weeks into the season. Which is to say that for the 57 appearances he made with Independiente – not to mention scoring the penalty that won the club the Copa Sudamericana last month – the little Argentine attacking midfielder is still largely unproven.

Atlanta signed a deal that reportedly leaves 30 percent transfer equity with the sellers, meaning that when Atlanta sells Barco on, it will only get to keep about two-thirds of the proceeds before MLS and some agents will take a cut. The club, then, is either confident that Barco will remain in Atlanta for many years – which seldom happens in modern soccer for ascendant talent like him – or convinced it will recoup an amount so large that it will make up for all those shares going elsewhere.

That’s a considerable gamble to make, especially given the stakes of a fee so much larger than the ones you tend to see paid out by stateside clubs.

Then there’s this: Barco is a bona fide megaprospect, or whatever you’d like to call that uber-class of young players for whom no amount of money seems outrageous. He’s young, he plays a prized position and he’s Argentine. Those three factors conspire to put him in the upper echelon of prospects – by the incorrigibly conventional standards of talent evaluation anyway.

He could have gone anywhere. While there wasn’t any reporting to suggest that Atlanta had competition for his signature in the months it took to land this whale, Barco is the sort of player who would have been on the radar of even the very biggest clubs. If nobody else saw a pressing need to sign him now, you can rest assured most every team knew who he was and tracked his progress from afar. He’s a talent of such pace and balance and refined skill that ignoring him would be tantamount to scouting malpractice.

Naturally, there’s a YouTube clip dubbing the 5-foot-6 dribbler “the new Lionel Messi.”

With time, Barco could have more or less chosen his destination from any number of reputable European suitors. But he chose Atlanta. He chose MLS.

That, too, sets him apart. Atlanta has made a habit of expensively luring prized young players from South America. But Hector Villalba, Josef Martinez and Almiron – who banded together to make the expansion team both surprisingly competitive and enormously watchable in 2017 – were all 22 or 23 when they came north to play under Tata Martino, the club’s laureled Argentine manager. There’s a big difference between ages 18 and 22. If by that age you’ve not left South America – Villalba and Almiron – or made a dent in Europe – Martinez – you might be a fine player, but you’re unlikely to truly become a standout. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t a coup for Atlanta to sign any of them; just that the Barco capture is of another magnitude.

Barco is on a trajectory that soars far above any young player MLS has projected before, short perhaps of Freddy Adu – although his was the product of absurd hype, rather than demonstrable promise. And he’s decided that the place he’d like to continue his maturation is a league that many still consider a cut or two below the top circuits in the world. And by that gesture alone, this is a win for the league.

Above all, soccer players watch what other soccer players do. Where they go. In what countries they sign. How they do there. Where they move next. Villalba, Martinez and Almiron likely helped grease the skids for Barco to come. Just as Guillermo Barros Schelotto signaled to other Argentines a decade ago that MLS was a suitable destination. Barco, in turn, will send a message to his homeland.

And if that alone doesn’t merit Barco’s enormous cost, it at least begins to justify it.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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