Thiago Almada’s 35-yard free-kick goal for Atlanta United against the Portland Timbers has been viewed millions of times on social media. A decent number of those views were surely made by European scouts keeping a close eye on the Argentinian, who has lit up the early stages of the new Major League Soccer season with four goals and four assists in as many games.
Almada is MLS’s must-watch player. Atlanta United are a work in progress after an off-season of change, but their No 23 is the full package. He can dribble, he can pass, he almost always makes the right decision and he can pick out the top corner with a laser of a free-kick from a position closer to the halfway line than the goal, as he demonstrated earlier this month.
It’s no surprise then that so many of Europe’s elite are reportedly tracking Almada. Both Manchester clubs, Paris Saint-Germain and Inter have been linked with the 21-year-old, who was part of the Argentina squad that lifted the World Cup in Qatar. Almada is Atlanta United’s new star, but there’s a growing sense he won’t stay in MLS for long.
This was always the plan, though. Almada was a league-record signing when he joined Atlanta United from Velez Sarsfield for $16m in December 2021. He was an Argentina U23 and U20 international at the time and one of his country’s best young players. Atlanta United paid so much for him because there was already so much interest in him. His potential was obvious.
Whether it’s this summer or next winter, the plan is for Atlanta United to flip Almada in the same way they did Miguel Almiron. The Paraguayan too was an expensive signing from South America, but the $8m paid for Almiron proved to be a sound investment once he was sold to Newcastle United for more than $20m just two years later.
After a slow start, Almiron has been a success in the Premier League, scoring 11 goals in 25 appearances for a Newcastle team with Champions League qualification in their sights. Almada, however, is on another level. If Almiron cost $20m, Atlanta United may feel their latest star is worth double that.
Plenty of players have used the league as a springboard – see Almiron, Alphonso Davies and Jhon Duran among others – but no one has immediately looked as if they belong in the upper echelons of Europe after moving across the Atlantic, and that’s exactly what many expect the Argentinian to do. He already feels too good for MLS.
Winning the World Cup with Argentina means Almada already has experience of what it’s like to be around the best. He made only one appearance in Qatar, coming off the bench for the final six minutes of a group stage win over Poland, but the fact he was in such company in the first place says a lot about the 21-year-old’s future. Argentina also believe they have a serious talent on their hands.
“At his age being champion of the world and being in the same locker room with the best player in the world helps in your development for sure, but it can also be a distraction if he’s not mature enough,” Atlanta United manager Gonzalo Pineda said after Almada’s latest sparkling performance. “That can be ‘I’m done. I can retire now and I did everything in my career.’ That’s not the reaction I saw from Thiago since the first day back.”
Rather than being the peak of Almada’s career, winning the World Cup could be the precursor to a long and successful spell at the top. As Pineda highlights, the young attacker has used his experience in Qatar to push himself even further forward. Almada is working harder than ever before, on and off the pitch – “he’s been here on time for everything. He gets out of the building very late,” said Pineda.
“I think we are all witnessing a talented young player start to blossom,” said veteran Atlanta United goalkeeper Brad Guzan before speculating on how much the MLS club could rake in for their best player. “If he keeps up the rate he’s going now, he’s going surpass [Almiron’s record] easily.”
International duty means Almada will miss Atlanta United’s match on Saturday against Columbus. The match will measure just how much of the Five Stripes’ progress this season has been down to his individual brilliance, but will also give Almada the chance to truly make his mark for La Albiceleste in games against Panama and Curacao.
MLS has ambitions of one day becoming one of the best leagues in the world, but for now its best chance of growing is to be a selling league. 2022 saw MLS send more players to Europe than any other year in the league’s history and more will follow the route in years to come. Almada, however, could be something different. Something special.