5 Five Stripes Thoughts: Big opportunity for Barco to see out the regular season

Mike Conti
October 08, 2018 - 9:07 am
Atlanta United midfielder Ezequiel Barco

© Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

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Atlanta United's 2-1 victory over New England Revolution Saturday gave the Five Stripes added control of the Supporters' Shield race, but it came at an extremely heavy price.

With Miguel Almiron suffering a left leg injury of unknown severity in the first half, Atlanta United now faces the prospect of being without their Paraguayan superstar for the first time this season.  Only three Atlanta United players: Almiron, Josef Martinez and Jeff Larentowicz, have played in all 32 of the club's matches this year.  Tata Martino indicated after the match that it "seems" Almiron will miss at least the next two matches, which makes up the remainder of the regular season.

The Almiron injury sullied an incredible breakout performance by George Bello, and another beautiful connection between Tito Villalba and Julian Gressel for what proved to be the game winning goal.  Here are my five thoughts on Saturday's match:

1. Almiron's injury creates a huge opportunity for Ezequiel Barco.  Atlanta United appears to be committed to the 3-5-2 for the foreseeable future, which almost certainly means that Barco will step in to Almiron's role as the "Number 10" for their remaining regular season matches against Chicago and Toronto.  This is a golden opportunity for Barco to silence his critics and change an inaccurate (in my opinion) narrative that his rookie MLS season has been below expectation.  It seems as though we need to offer another reminder that Barco was not brought in to score goals, but to be a facilitator and a chance creator.  In sixty minutes of work Saturday, Barco drew a team-high five fouls.  It cannot be debated that Barco is a foul magnet (a good thing for Atlanta United), and that Barco has been somewhat hamstrung by the physical punishment he has endured.  Barco continues to show the potential of being an electrifying player, and with added confidence and decisiveness, he could be the player that puts Atlanta United over the top for the MLS Cup.  He's going to get an opportunity to show that confidence and decisiveness.  Now it is time for him to leave no doubts.

2. George Bello is an American superstar in bloom.  The fact that Bello got another start Saturday was not surprising, as he was Tata Martino's clear and obvious candidate to replace the suspended Chris McCann.  Much like his first career start against Real Salt Lake, Bello was confident and decisive, and was extremely solid in a defensive role.  Time and time again, New England attempted to attack Bello down the right wing with Brandon Bye, and Bello rose to the challenge almost every time.  As icing on the cake, Bello somehow squeezed a goal between the near post and goalkeeper Brad Knighton.  He was denied a first career assist on a tight (but correct) offside call in the early minutes.  Bello is a 16 year old that's playing with the quality of someone twice his age.  It would appear that he has won the starting left wingback job for Atlanta United, with Greg Garza and Chris McCann possibly in depth roles for now.

3. Here's why Josef Martinez going three straight games without a goal is not a big deal.  First off, Josef was stoned twice at point blank range by Knighton in the second half, including on one play where Josef showed incredible technical skill in slaloming through New England's back line.  Josef couldn't get any service against New York Red Bulls, which was not his fault.  Saturday, Josef accepted a very similar role to the one he had in Foxborough on May 30, dropping in the midfield to provide support for Barco and a tad bit of defensive cover.  Josef got unlucky a few times on Saturday.  Not only did Knighton make the saves, but Martinez was also incorrectly called offside late in the second half where he would have had a breakaway on the keeper.  I still think Josef finishes the season at or near 33 goals.  Chicago Fire, which has not been defending well, could be ripe for a hat trick.

4. Gresselmania is running wild on you (brother).  How about two goals in his last three games, both of exceptional quality (his goal against Real Salt Lake was narrowly defeated by his teammate Tito Villalba for MLS Goal of the Week.  Saturday, we saw Gressel cap off a 40 yard run with a beautiful strike past Knighton for what proved to be the game winning goal.  Since his move to right wingback in Colorado, Gressel has two goals and four assists in five games.  Atlanta United is 4-0-1 in those games.  I think it's safe to say that Gressel has found his home as right wingback in the 3-5-2, although it is theoretically possible Gressel's position may change due to the Almiron injury.

5. Hold your breath for some key players to come back healthy from International duty.  Almiron's injury likely bought him a cancelled ticket to Paraguay for a week of National Team training.  But Villalba will still go.  As will Josef Martinez to Venezuela and Brad Guzan to the USMNT.  Venezuela and the United States both have fixtures over the International break.  Atlanta United can ill afford to get anyone else hurt at this late juncture of the season.  Remember, even though Atlanta United has clinched a first round bye, they will have only seven days between their last regular season match in Toronto and their first playoff match, which will be on the road.  As it stands right now, it appears Atlanta United is on track to play at Columbus, Philadelphia, Montreal or DC on November 4.  Atlanta United is 8-1-0 against that group this season.  In other words, I'm loving their chances to get to the Eastern Conference Final.