Atlanta United's league-record $16 million acquisition of Argentine attacking midfielder Thiago Almada was a delicate one and a process that took more than six months. But with it all said and done, the Five Stripes officially pushed the Young Designated Player deal through on Wednesday.
Atlanta first began negotiating with Velez Sarsfield last summer, but Almada was implicated in a sexual assault allegation. Atlanta knew it was going to take time. The Five Stripes agreed to have an exclusive purchase option with Velez, which they could trigger at any point, so they didn't have to rush. Atlanta didn't want to sign him without an extensive background check and waited for the legal process to unfold in Argentina. Meanwhile, they remained in constant communication with MLS.
Once ATLUTD were confident in their due diligence, and the legal process reached a conclusion, the signing went through.
“The exclusive option was to let the legal process take its due course, that was a reason why we did it this way," club president Darren Eales told media on a virtual press conference. "There were a lot of teams that were interested in him around the world, so the exclusive option allowed us to wait for the legal process to run its course. It ended up with no charges or interrogation.”
“We wanted to make sure the legal process played out and we did our due diligence," VP & technical director Carlos Bocanegra added. "This is why there was so many delays to be able to announce the player."
In addition to fielding questions at the press conference, Eales and VP of soccer operations & strategy Dimitrios Efstathiou, who worked in the league office when the process started before joining Atlanta, spoke to The Athletic's Felipe Cardenas about what specifically went into their "due diligence." Bocanegra spoke about it at length with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Doug Roberson as well. One of Atlanta United’s supporters' groups, Footie Mob, released a statement on Wednesday in support of victims of sexual abuse.
“We’ve done the due diligence over a number of months off the pitch," Eales said. "We worked with MLS the whole way through this and we took the step we did. We accept there is a swirl of discussion going around, there will always be different views. We recognize that and accept that. Thiago recognizes there’s a higher standard here. We believe he’s going to develop, learn and be educated.”
Almada has joined up with his new teammates for preseason camp in Mexico as he familiarizes himself with Atlanta's star-studded attack ahead of their 2022 opener, a Feb. 27 home match vs. Sporting Kansas City. And the whole move required the departure of another Argentine star, with Ezequiel Barco's loan to River Plate for 2022 opening the requisite DP spot.
How Almada fits
On the field, Almada has been among Argentina's brightest talents in the last few years.
A regular with the youth national team, Almada already has accrued 100 appearances with Velez Sarsfield at age 20, where he notched 24 goals and 11 assists. The versatile attacker can play any position in the final third – as a No. 10, on either wing and even spent some time as a center forward.
“The good thing about Thiago is that he’s very flexible," head coach Gonzalo Pineda said. "We were very interested because he can play on the outside or the inside and is goal dangerous. He can combine with [Josef] Martinez and the wingers in between the lines, but he can also play on the wing and take players on. I have to see how he connects with Josef, Luiz [Araujo] and all our other talented players and we’ll see our best place for him. But our attack is flexible.”
Atlanta are now responsible for the three most expensive acquisitions in MLS history (Almada, Pity Martinez and Barco), as well as the most expensive outgoing transfer (Miguel Almiron to Newcastle).
“We feel he’s one of the top young talents in South America," Bocanegra said. "His ability on the ball to create and score goals will really benefit the team."
Almada gives Atlanta the highest-priced DP trio in the league, joining Martinez and Araujo, who was acquired from Lille in the summer for up to $12 million. The Brazilian had an encouraging first foray into MLS last year, with four goals and four assists, but the attack never quite found consistency. Martinez was working back to full form from an ACL tear in 2020 as well, while Pineda took over midseason after being a Seattle Sounders FC assistant coach.
With a full preseason for Pineda to develop the group, plus further time for Araujo to acclimate, Martinez to rediscover top form and Almada to begin fitting in with his new teammates, Atlanta are once again viewed as one of the most dangerous teams in the Eastern Conference.
“Football is an international language," Pineda said. "When you have talented players – I can name many – they naturally integrate. We try to create connections in training sessions, in games where they recognize each other and work together. That will happen naturally, there’s no rush. Eventually, the connections will be there. We’re happy with the talented players we have on the field just playing football, just playing the beautiful game.”