Thiago Almada already has his name next to a few MLS records and milestones.
The 22-year-old star is the league’s most expensive inbound transfer ever, with Atlanta United signing him from Velez Sarsfield for $16 million. He’s also the first MLS player to win the World Cup while playing in the league, as part of Argentina’s 2022 squad.
It’s increasingly probable — if not overwhelmingly likely — that Almada will one day become the most expensive outbound transfer in MLS history, too.
“I can’t control what other teams offer us, but do I think he’s deserving of a record transfer? I do,” Atlanta United president Garth Lagerwey told The Athletic on Wednesday. “I think there’s objective numbers to support that.”
The current record is Atlanta United’s deal that sent Miguel Almiron to Newcastle for $27 million in 2019.
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Almada has 10 goals and 14 primary assists this season, easily leading the league. Second — Vancouver’s Ryan Gauld — has 10 assists. Almada is firmly in the MVP race as the driving force behind Atlanta’s success, currently tied for third in the Eastern Conference with 49 points. He’s widely recognized as one of the best players in a league that boasts Lionel Messi, Hany Mukhtar, Lucho Acosta, Denis Bouanga and more.
But though it’s seeking a large fee, Atlanta isn’t in a rush to have Almada leave.
“He can stay as long as he wants,” Lagerwey said. “We didn’t sign a full DP on purpose (this summer).”
MLS’s roster rules naturally raise doubts about whether that’s actually possible, but Atlanta’s summer moves mean there will be no issues if they keep Almada. He’s currently a young designated player, but would age out of that roster designation for the 2025 season if he’s still on the roster. Atlanta signed Saba Lobzhanidze as its DP this summer, but structured his deal in a way that he’s able to be bought down off of DP status.
Atlanta wants to keep their crown jewel for as long as he’ll stay.
“(Almada’s) happy here but when the time comes and a Champions League club comes in for him, and he’s ready to go, we’ll work with him,” technical director Carlos Bocanegra said. “That’s always his goal, to play at a Champions League club and he’s got that ability. We’re happy to have him as long as he wants to stay, but we understand at some point there will be that time.”
This past summer, Napoli was linked with Almada early in the window and Ajax came in late. Both clubs are in the Champions League and have the finances to potentially meet Atlanta’s asking price, but neither got especially close.
“Look, if you’re not getting calls for your best players, that’s when you should be worried,” Lagerwey said. “Yes, we got calls (for Almada this summer). Yes, that’s a good thing because that means the market is telling you that they have real value.”
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When Atlanta made Almada the most expensive transfer in MLS history ahead of the 2022 season, he was considered one of the top U-20 players in the world who already had European suitors during his four-year stint with Velez Sarsfield. It was a surprise in Argentina when Almada moved to MLS. However, Almada has not only shown his quality, but he has improved during his two seasons in Atlanta – enough to be named to Argentina’s 2022 World Cup squad, either.
“We’d like to establish that we are a viable pipeline, that Miguel Almirón wasn’t a one-off,” Lagerwey said. “That we can sign the best player in South America and we can be good for them, they can be good for us. For Almirón, the deal was good for Newcastle, too.”
Bocanegra has always avoided making comparisons between Almirón and every other Atlanta United player who has worn the club’s No. 10 shirt. The Paraguayan international had a unique playing style that made him one of the league’s best-ever signings, helping lead Atlanta to a 2018 MLS Cup title.
Almada, though, is close to eclipsing Almiron in total goals and assists over two seasons. Almiron finished his two-year stay in MLS with 21 goals and 28 assists, measured officially in MLS as combined primary and secondary assists. His 14 assists in 2017 and 2018 was a club record until Almada broke it was his 15th assist against Inter Miami on September 16. Almada has 16 total assists and 10 goals in 2023 and a total of 16 goals and 28 assists over 57 games.
Josef Martinez, the MLS MVP in 2018, is considered the club’s best-ever player. But from a pure skills perspective, there’s certainly a debate to be had about who has been better for Atlanta: Almada or Almirón.
“He’s a couple of years younger than Miguel, he won the World Cup with Argentina,” Bocanegra said of Almada. “I think you see a lot of value. We’re really excited with where he’s going.
(Photo: Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)