Marcelo Bravo wasn’t surprised to see Thiago Almada waiting around near his car after training. He knew what he wanted, too.

Then the coach of a preteen Almada’s team at Vélez Sarsfield, Bravo also coached a futsal team in his own neighborhood in Buenos Aires. That team played on Saturdays, so after some Friday sessions, Almada would ask to link up with Bravo’s futsal team to keep playing even after a full week of training.

“I’d say to him 'Thiago, what are you doing here?' And he’d say 'Marce, I’m going with you. I talked with my dad and I’m going with you and staying at your house because we play Saturday,'” Bravo recalled.

That was how Almada was. He would play and play and play.

“He likes to play. He wants to play with the ball. His passion is playing,” says Héctor Manfredi, a Vélez youth coach who worked with Almada after Bravo, when the player was 15 and 16.

Star bright

That fervor hasn’t changed. When he’s not playing soccer for Atlanta United, Almada said, he’s watching soccer.

Though he occasionally plays a game of padel (the Latin American racquet sport somewhat adjacent to pickleball) his main focus continues to be on soccer, which is for the best. Almada currently leads MLS in assists with 16 and has added 11 goals. Plus, it’s a lot cooler to be a world champion in soccer. Sorry, padel.

Thiago Almada - up close

There’s something else Almada's youth coaches agree on: From a young age, he was special.

“He was a player who was different,” Manfredi said. “He was a talent, that type of player that just himself, alone, could change the course of a match.”

“We knew he was different from the rest,” Bravo emphasized. “I didn’t coach him in his first years with Vélez, but I saw him and said he was a different player, a player who at some point would surely play in the first division.”

He did that and more. In fact, now it seems Almada has everything. He was the youngest player on the Argentina team that won the 2022 World Cup. He is the star of an Atlanta United team heading to the Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs. And a big-money move to Europe, rumored during every transfer window, feels like only a matter of time.

It wasn’t long ago, though, the man who now has everything had nearly nothing more than the desire to keep playing with the ball at his feet.

Thiago Almada Anthem ARG

Hometown hero

Buenos Aires is a huge area, the city sprawling into the province with pockets of neighborhoods here and there, most of which are home to at least one soccer team playing in the Argentine league system.

Almada is from Fuerte Apache. If it’s on Americans’ radar, it’s likely because of one of two pop-culture moments. A 2019 Netflix series about Carlos Tevez called “Apache” chronicles the rise of the former Manchester City forward (and current Independiente manager) from the neighborhood, and the name itself, given by a reporter referencing the 1981 Paul Newman movie Fort Apache, The Bronx.

It is not a neighborhood with great press. “It is known for its high crime rates and prevalent drug use,” the second line of the neighborhood’s Wikipedia page states.

But for Almada, the reality is much less about people doing the wrong thing and more about the ones doing the right things – the people who make up the vast majority of the community. With his actions both on and off the pitch, Almada has put himself firmly in that group as well, returning often to play kick-around with kids in the neighborhood. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he and his family started an initiative to feed hungry families, work they’ve decided to continue even as the worst effects of the pandemic are behind Argentina.

“The reality is it’s a very calm neighborhood with great people. There are a lot of hard-working people who go out to fight for their dream every day,” Almada said. “That’s how I was as a boy with my family, and luckily I was able to achieve that dream of playing professionally, buying my parents a house, putting a kitchen in the neighborhood, which was my dream. I’m achieving all those things and it comes from the effort myself and my family put in when I was young.”

For Almada, the why is simple. He keeps the connection to Fuerte Apache strong “because the neighborhood gave me so much,” he said. “I learned to play there. My childhood was there. My family, all my friends are there. I think I owe a lot to the neighborhood.”

Thiago Almada - Atlanta United - before game

World champion

He was there playing with Tevez and other friends in November 2022, just hours after learning he didn’t make the final roster for Argentina’s World Cup squad, even after Tevez had publicly backed him to be named to the team. Five days later, he got a call from one of manager Lionel Scanoli’s assistants who said he was, in fact, in the team.

“The first thing I did was call my family,” Almada remembers. “They started to cry, and I did too. It was a beautiful moment.”

So, too, was his return in December as a world champion, riding on a fire truck through throngs of celebrating fans, who sang and shot off fireworks.

Shortly after, he was back at Velez, once again by Bravo’s side, the kid from Fuerte Apache who never wanted the game to end having won the sport’s biggest prize.

Thiago Almada - Atlanta United - team huddle

"I made the right choice"

For all his neighborhood and his country mean to Almada, he won the World Cup as an Atlanta United player.

“Vélez Sarsfield was a pioneer when it comes to developing young players,” Manfredi notes. “It’s a selling club that produces a lot of players.”

So, the time came for Almada to make a move, to seek something beyond what he had known since he was young. Europe came calling, but so, too, did Atlanta United, a club that since it started in MLS – and served as a launching pad to the Premier League for Miguel Almirón – has built a talent pipeline from South America.

The choice to move to Atlanta in the winter of 2021, reportedly on a record-breaking incoming transfer for the league, is one Almada feels has served him well.

“I’ve never doubted the decision to come here. I think time shows I didn’t make a mistake, I made the right choice,” Almada said. “I have the desire to play in Europe, too, and I hope one day I get there but I’m very happy to be in Atlanta and want to try to give the best to the club.”

In fact, while many are expecting Almada to be gone at the next opportunity, the player himself said he has no deadline to move to a European club and is enjoying life in the U.S.

“I’m really happy here. I’m enjoying playing in Atlanta and trying to do my best,” he said. “If the opportunity comes at some point, I’ll think about it and make the best choice for me. But I’m relaxed. I don’t listen to what people say or anything, I just try to focus on the day-to-day.”

Thiago Almada - profile side

Even so, those watching MLS at home or abroad have seen enough to know that Almada is the type of player who can draw an offer that could approach a record outgoing transfer fee as well.

“I’m totally sure that Thiago will be playing in Europe in the near future,” Bravo said. “Today, you see a more complete Thiago, he’s stronger, more aggressive. I think soccer in the United States has grown a lot and is very competitive, so I think he’s growing a lot.”

There are still other goals Almada would like to conquer. Eligible for the U-23 team, he wants to return to the senior Argentina squad and consolidate himself as a regular ahead of the next World Cup.

“Right now, the goal is to try to finish the games we have left well, finish as high as possible and after that fight for the title, see if we can become champions,” he said. “That’s my goal right now with Atlanta.”

As he pushes to make himself and his team better, Almada will keep spending his time as he has since he lived in Fuerte Apache: Keeping the ball at his feet and always looking for the next game.