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Barco signing cements Atlanta's status as MLS' most ambitious club

Alejandro Moreno explains why Atlanta United's record move for 18-year-old Independiente standout Ezequiel Barco is a significant moment for MLS.

PHILADELPHIA -- On a day in which Atlanta United was relatively quiet during the MLS SuperDraft, it still found a way to make some noise, announcing that at long last, the transfer of Ezequiel Barco to Atlanta from Argentine club Independiente had been completed.

It's a deal that will set a new standard in MLS on multiple levels. While Atlanta United president Darren Eales wouldn't disclose precisely what the transfer fee was, he said reports that put the price tag at $15 million were "in the ballpark," which would easily beat the $10 million Toronto FC paid for midfielder Michael Bradley in 2013. Barco has been signed as a young designated player.

Atlanta has quickly become the league's most ambitious team, from hiring manager Tata Martino last season, to bringing in midfielder Miguel Almiron for 2017 as well, and now adding Barco for 2018. That is by no means an exhaustive list in terms of Atlanta pushing the envelope, and it is quickly contributing to a dynamic within the league of haves and have-nots. The fee for Barco is bigger than the payrolls for all but two MLS teams in 2017, those being Toronto FC and New York City FC. Atlanta has without question raised the bar when it comes to recruiting and signing new players, and that is about everything it has done from its stadium to its training facility and beyond.

"It's easier for us to go to other players in South America or around the world and say, 'Look, this league, MLS, is a league that's going places. You can come here, be a superstar for a while, and then still get that move to a top club,'" Eales said. "Hopefully, ultimately, what we want to do is we have to retain that talent when the league goes from strength to strength and becomes one of the top three or four in the world."

Given some of the reluctance of other MLS teams to follow suit in terms of player recruitment, that is still a ways off. But Atlanta isn't waiting around to see if others keep up.

For Eales, the transfer set a different kind of record, one in which the deal to get Barco over the line was the toughest he has ever done. At one point Atlanta thought it had a deal in place for a transfer fee of $12 million, but Barco's performances in the Copa Sudamericana led to Independiente upping the price. One report -- now refuted -- had the price tag at $22 million. But eventually, a deal was struck.

Ezequiel Barco
Ezequiel Barco joined Atlanta United for an MLS-record transfer fee.

"I've done some pretty tough ones in my time, [this was] unbelievably difficult," Eales said. "It was difficult because we thought we'd reached agreements and goalposts kept moving. I get it. If I'm on the other side, I want to fight for a player like this.

"I respect Independiente, they were tough, but in the end, we got a win-win deal here. They got what they wanted, but more importantly, Atlanta United got a top, top talent coming to the league at 18 years of [age] with his whole future ahead of him. I think it's exciting for Atlanta United fans, it's exciting for us as a club, and it's exciting for the league."

Indeed, Barco's penalty that clinched the Copa Sudamericana against Flamengo in the iconic Maracana Stadium shows that he is a talent with ability and maturity beyond his years.

"We don't know what the ceiling is," Eales said. "It's going to be up to [Barco] to work hard, to develop with Tata on the pitch. But we feel we've got someone with a real high ceiling. That is something that is really exciting for a player of his caliber and ilk, to choose to come to MLS at this stage of his career. Other European clubs have put bids in, but he chose to come to Atlanta United."

Atlanta insists its model is one of selling its young stars at some point, though that really hasn't been put to the test yet. But if the day comes where Almiron moves on, the fact that Atlanta can recruit the likes of Barco indicates the Five Stripes should have little trouble finding reinforcements.

"We're in a global game, this is how it works," Eales said. "What you've got to do is get the best price you can and make sure you're reinvesting it and you've got the talent and supply line coming underneath. That's going to be the challenge for us."

Based on Atlanta's track record so far, it's one they're very likely to meet.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.

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