Atlanta United interim head coach Rob Valentino has praised the form of Ezequiel Barco since his return from the Olympic Games with Argentina.
Barco joined the Five Stripes from Independiente in 2018 for a then-league-record $15m fee, placing considerable pressure on his young shoulders.
Though undoubtedly talented, Barco has frustrated at times with a lack of consistent output in the final third, while various niggling injuries have slowed his development.
But since returning from the Olympic Games, where he played in all three of Argentina's matches, Barco has notched three goals and two assists in four outings which accounts for over 16% of his total direct goal contributions for Atlanta.
His latest strike was the winner in the Five Stripes' 1-0 victory over Toronto FC on Wednesday. A result that leaves Atlanta just three points adrift of the playoff spots.
After the match, Valentino noted his increased production, but also praised Barco's work-rate, which he feels isn't given enough credit.
“He’s been more productive, first and foremost," Valentino told reporters. "I’m sure that he feels pressure, which is a good thing.
"I think a lot of people probably criticize his defending. I said to our staff, when we played Montreal, they said ‘we have to make sure we get our attackers to defend.’ And I said, ‘that kid defends. Make sure you guys watch this game and see him defend'.
"And you can check his numbers. He runs. Now, maybe I can give him better direction on where to run. I can work on that. But he’s putting in some serious shifts. And all of our players have, but you’re asking about Barco. And I watched him in Columbus, in the 94th minute I think, he sprinted across the field, made a slide tackle on Pedro Santos. Then later in the play, he picked up the ball, counterattacked about 50-60 yards, lost the ball, and then sprinted backed 50-60 yards and got back in position for someone else. And I don’t think people see that stuff. The kid works.
"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.”
Barco himself gave the credit to those around him for his recent hot streak.
“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," the 22-year-old said.
He added: "I feel good on the field, both tactically and physically. 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.”
Atlanta United have won three MLS games in a row for the first time since August 23rd, 2019. The Five Stripes will look to make it four when they travel to DC United on Saturday in Valentino's final game before new coach Gonzalo Pineda takes over.