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.
“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.
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.