All eyes on Barco: Why Atlanta’s pursuit of the $14M ‘New Aguero’ breaks new ground for MLS

Wednesday’s Copa Sudamericana decider between Flamengo and Independiente brings together two of South America’s most prestigious, historically successful institutions in a tense battle for the trophy. But proceedings at the Maracana will also be of interest in Atlanta as Major League Soccer’s revelations take a final look at what could be the most important transfer in league history.

The subject of Atlanta United’s attention is Ezequiel Barco, Independiente’s teenage sensation who is the most talented youngster to spring out of the club’s academy since a 15-year-old Sergio Aguero began tormenting Primera Division defenses back in 2003. At just 18 he is already a fixture in Ariel Holan’s first team, and one of the highest-rated forwards currently active in the Argentine top flight.

Diminutive, deceptively quick and equipped with two brilliant feet, Barco’s qualities are evident. He can play off either flank with ease or as a more conventional playmaker or second striker, and despite his tender age seems immune to pressure. He has already racked up more than 50 appearances for his club, and in 2017 has become indispensable.

He made the difference last week in the first leg of the Copa Sudamericana final with a burst down the left and pinpoint cross that set up Maxi Meza to put the Rojo 2-1 ahead, a lead they conserved to go into the return clash with the slimmest of advantages. No matter what happens on Wednesday, however, the financial realities of Argentine football mean he is likely to be lining up elsewhere at the start of 2018.

Barco PS

“While it is necessary for the good of the club’s future, it will hurt us just like the sale [to Zenit] of [Emiliano] Rigoni,” coach Holan acknowledged in a press conference when asked about Barco, all but confirming an imminent move.

“Barco is a footballer who is very hard to replace, both as a person and a player. It hurts, but Independiente need to sell two or three players.”

So far, so routine: the exodus of Argentina’s best talents overseas is something that has become grimly predictable for local fans. The identity of Barco’s suitor, however, does raise an eyebrow. With their pursuit of the teenager, Atlanta United are breaking new ground, directly challenging Europe for the brightest prospects.

Under the watchful eye of Gerardo Martino the club enjoyed a fine debut season, finishing fourth overall in the MLS standings before losing out to the Columbus Crew on penalties in the team’s first playoff game. That success was built on an intelligent scouting and recruitment process based on Martino’s knowledge of South America: brilliant Paraguayan playmaker Miguel Almiron was snapped up from Lanus, while Josef Martinez stepped up from Genoa’s reserves to hit 19 goals, and young Argentines Hector Villalba and Yamil Asad also shined.

Miguel Almiron Atlanta United

Tata Martino Atlanta United

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Barco, however, represents a new departure for MLS. It is the first time that a franchise has entered the fight for a player that historically would see his future across the Atlantic in one of Europe’s top leagues. Benfica, one of the most well-trodden proving grounds for young South Americans, saw a bid rejected for the 18-year-old back in May, while Zenit also saw efforts to add him to their Argentine legion thwarted. Barcelona too have not been idle, first sending emissaries to Avellaneda in 2016 when Barco was just 17 and breaking into Independiente’s first team.

A bid rumored to be worth $14 million, breaking the MLS transfer record, aims to end that European monopoly. Barco would slot in anywhere across the creative trident of Atlanta’s 4-2-3-1 system, adding further pace and potency to a team that was only outscored by Toronto FC in 2017’s regular season. Landing the star, moreover, would be a massive statement of intent for Martino’s men, who with their swashbuckling debut campaign and stunning new stadium have already shown their ambition to dominate.

Barco may yet slip out of Atlanta’s grasp in the upcoming transfer window, particularly if he puts in another top-drawer display in the Maracana to down Flamengo and deliver the Copa Sudamericana. The eyes of the football world are on the teenager, and even $14 million might not be enough if Europe’s biggest clubs sit up and pay attention to Independiente’s phenomenon. That is the nature of football: some transfers are bound for frustration, and it is a lesson Atlanta fans will learn as the seasons roll on. But the mere fact that the franchise feels free to bid on a talent like Barco is proof that they are looking to create something very special in the dirty south, and have both the money and the ambition to achieve it.

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LAFC acquires Belgium international Ciman for Edwards and Raitala

Los Angeles FC appears to have locked down its first-choice center back pairing for the club’s debut season.

The expansion side announced Tuesday it has acquired Laurent Ciman from the Montreal Impact in exchange for Raheem Edwards and Jukka Raitala, who were selected in the MLS expansion draft earlier in the day.

“Laurent is a top defender who provides leadership and great distribution,” LAFC coach Bob Bradley said in a news release. “His experience in the league and with the Belgian national team will be invaluable as we build our club.”

Ciman joined the Impact before the 2015 season and played 93 MLS games over three years, scoring three goals and adding four assists over that time. He was a part of two Impact playoff runs, including a trip to the Eastern Conference final in 2016.

The 32-year-old center back remains in Belgium’s setup, having been called in for November’s friendlies against Mexico and Japan, going the full 90 in the 3-3 draw with El Tri.

Prior to landing Ciman, LAFC traded for center back Walker Zimmerman from FC Dallas — meaning the franchise appears to have secured its two starters at the position.

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Edwards played his first full season for Toronto FC this season after appearing in one match in 2016. He managed a goal and six assists for the MLS Cup champions, though the 22-year-old midfielder’s role diminished as the season went along.

Raitala joined the Columbus Crew ahead of the 2017 season, appearing in 28 games (20 starts) and contributing two assists. The fullback also played in two of the Crew’s playoff contests this season, starting one.

In addition to Ciman and Zimmerman, LAFC has secured Carlos Vela and Omar Gaber for its debut season while also picking up Tyler Miller, Latif Blessing and Marco Urena in Tuesday’s expansion draft.

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LAFC adds Blessing, Edwards and Urena in MLS expansion draft

The roster for the debut season of Los Angeles FC continued to come together Tuesday as the team made its selections in the MLS expansion draft, with goalkeeper Tyler Miller the first player chosen and Costa Rica international Marco Urena among the picks.

LAFC, which will be coached in its debut season by former U.S. national team head coach and Swansea manager Bob Bradley, was able to select players who were left unprotected by the existing 20 MLS teams. Clubs were allowed to protect 11 players, with those on Generation Adidas and off-budget homegrown players exempt from the draft.

LAFC was only allowed to select one player per club in the five-round draft.

Miller, formerly of the Seattle Sounders, was the first selection in the draft, having played three games in his MLS career, with one coming in the 2017 postseason. 

Latif Blessing, the 20-year-old Ghanian attacker, was selected second from Sporting Kansas City. He scored three goals and added an assist in 25 games in his debut season in the league.

Attacker Marco Urena, who scored a pair of goals for Costa Rica against the U.S. in their crucial World Cup qualifier in September, was selected third from the San Jose Earthquakes. The 27-year-old scored five goals and added three assists for the Earthquakes this season. 

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Fullback Jukka Raitala was the fourth selection from the Columbus Crew. The 29-year-old Finland international played 28 games for the Crew in his first season in MLS, adding two assists. He also played in two of Columbus’ playoff games this season, starting one. 

MLS champion Toronto FC lost Raheem Edwards with the final pick of the expansion draft. The Ontario native had one goal and six assists in 21 games for TFC this season.

LAFC made its first signing earlier this fall when it landed Mexico international Carlos Vela from Real Sociedad. Egypt international Omar Gaber has also signed on to become the team’s second player, with the right back being joined in defense by Walker Zimmerman, who was acquired in a trade with FC Dallas on Sunday. 

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Giroud uncomfortable with Arsenal situation, says Robert Pires

Arsenal legend Robert Pires has urged his compatriot Olivier Giroud to hold talks with Gunners boss Arsene Wenger before making a decision on his future in January, revealing that the France striker isn’t comfortable with his current situation at the club.

Giroud, 31, has not started a Premier League game this season and came close to joining Everton in the summer having found himself second choice behind club record acquistion Alexandre Lacazette.

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The former Montpellier striker salvaged a point for Arsenal in their 1-1 draw against Southampton on Saturday which saw him equal Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s record for most substitute goals scored for one Premier League club (17).

With the 2018 World Cup coming up in Russia, Giroud admitted that he could be forced to push through a loan move next month but Pires believes the Frenchman should discuss his future with the Arsenal hierarchy before making any decision.

“I saw a good reaction [from Arsenal] when Southampton scored and a good professional like Olivier Giroud making an impact,” Pires told Goal.

“The situation is not easy for him [Giroud] because he wants to play and go to the World Cup with France. As a player he’s not comfortable but this is football and Arsene Wenger has a selection dilemma on who to pick over Giroud and Lacazette right now.

“The first thing I’d do [if I was Giroud] is to talk with Arsene Wenger because he’s the manager. Giroud is a great player and very important but before making a decision he needs to meet with Arsene and the chief executive Mr Gazidis.

“After the meeting he can take a decision but as I understand the situation for Olivier he’s not comfortable actually.”

Pires Desailly Ziege Enterprise

January marks an important month for Arsenal’s two best players as Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil will both be able to sign pre-contract agreements with foreign teams.

The talismanic duo have yet to commit to signing contract extensions and see their deals expire next summer. Pires, who still trains regularly at Arsenal’s London Colney training ground alongside the star men, insists that it is vital that the club do everything they can to keep the fans’ favourites.

“These are my friends. I love Alexis and Mesut. This is a similar situation to Olivier [Giroud]. It’s very difficult to answer [whether they will stay or not] because I’m not Mesut or Alexis Sanchez and I don’t know what they want at the end of the season.

“If I’m the owner of Arsenal then of course I want to extend both of their contracts because they’re important on and off the pitch. The situation is not easy for Arsenal.”

Wenger’s side face a packed Christmas fixture list which include game against Newcastle, Liverpool, Crystal Palace and West Brom, with former Gunner Pires insisting that finishing in the top four should be the club’s main priority this season, but he doesn’t agree with the naysayers who claim the Europa League’s prestige isn’t on the same level as the Champions League.

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“Arsenal need two objectives,” said Pires.

“The first is to finish in the top four and the second is to win a trophy like Manchester United did last season. They are a good example [of qualifying for the Champions League by winning the Europa League] and while some people say it’s not as glamorous as the Champions League this is a real opportunity to win a trophy for the club, players and the manager. The aim is to always win something. It’s very important to win the [Europa League] for Arsenal.”

Robert Pires is working with UEFA Europe League partner Enterprise Rent-A-Car on their Backseat Pundit competition. To find out how you can enter and enjoy special rates on car hire across Europe, visit backseatpundit.co.uk

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‘Donnarumma doesn’t want Milan contract cancelled’ – Gattuso

Gennaro Gattuso has denied reports the agent of AC Milan’s highly sought teenage goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma has demanded to have his contract renewal annulled.

After a drawn-out saga, Donnarumma signed new terms in July to commit to Milan until 2021, with his old contract having been set to expire in 2018.

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However, reports in Italy have suggested Donnarumma’s agent Mino Raiola has told the San Siro club the 18-year-old felt pressurised into agreeing the extension and wants the contract to be cancelled – making him a free agent at the end of the season – with Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid among the clubs reportedly interested.

But Gattuso, placed in temporary charge following the dismissal of Vincenzo Montella, denied there is an issue with the Italy international, long considered to be the heir to compatriot and namesake Gianluigi Buffon.

“For me, there’s no problem with Donnarumma,” Gattuso told Milan TV .

“[Managing director Marco] Fassone and [chief executive Massimiliano] Mirabelli will talk if there are any problems with him.

Gianluigi Donnarumma AC Milan

“I talk to Gigio every day and I see a quiet lad, who hates it when he’s not winning. After Benevento, he was very sad.”

Gattuso indicated he will make changes to his team for Wednesday’s visit of Verona in the Coppa Italia, despite collecting the first win of his reign last time out against Bologna.

“We want to go through the next round,” Gattuso said. “We must, even if it will be a tough game.

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“Squad rotation? We are considering the physical condition of some of our players. Let’s see after today’s training session.

“At the moment, the four-man defence gives us more security, but we are giving too much space to our opponents. We still have a lot to work on and improve.

“We needed to win against Bologna and although we managed it, we still have to improve a lot.”

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