Voices: Joseph Lowery

Miguel Almiron 2.0? Why Thiago Almada could break the MLS transfer record


Please tell me you’ve seen it already – ideally from multiple angles.

Thiago Almada’s free-kick goal against the Portland Timbers Saturday was absolutely unreal. The technique, the placement, the power…all of it was perfect. Completely perfect.

Just in case you haven’t seen it (and because I would like an excuse to watch it again), here you go:

I mean, just look at the bend on that thing. It’s easily one of the best free kicks I’ve ever seen.

Almada, much like that golazo, is special. Atlanta United’s 21-year-old star has already piqued the interest of major European teams and is certainly doing his best to raise his transfer valuation. Through four games this season, Almada already has four goals and four assists. There is every chance the young Argentine will break MLS’s record outgoing transfer fee, a number hovering right around the $27 million Atlanta reportedly received for Miguel Almiron in early 2019 when the Paraguayan international moved to Premier League side Newcastle United.

Mind you: Almada's in just his second MLS season, arriving in February 2022 for a reported league-record $16 million from Argentine top-flight side Vélez Sarsfield. The 2022 MLS Newcomer of the Year has met that price tag and then some, developing into a star with the Five Stripes and emerging on the international stage alongside living legend Lionel Messi. His year-over-year growth is incredible.

Here’s a primer on Almada, what makes him so good, and which European-based players he plays like.

What makes Almada special?

"I tried to absorb everything that I could, to learn, watch the older players. Then, try to show it on the field," Almada said after a 5-1 win over the Portland Timbers, discussing his time at the 2022 World Cup where he lifted the trophy with Argentina. "The World Cup also gave me a lot of confidence and I think I’m in a good moment and I hope to continue like that."

It’s, uh, safe to say Almada is continuing like that.

He’s scoring and setting up his teammates, but it’s not just the counting stats that show how special Almada is. In fact, those kinds of numbers can be deceiving. For short spurts (like the first month of a season), players can overperform and rack up some unsustainable figures before eventually crashing back to reality. Even Almada will fall back to earth and start averaging something less than one goal and one assist per game – the horror, I know.

The good news for Almada, and Atlanta United's pocketbook, is his tape and his underlying numbers both point to him being an elite player in MLS. Let’s start with the data.

According to American Soccer Analysis, Almada is leading the league in goals added, a statistic that analyzes how much a player impacts their team’s chances of scoring and conceding. Almada, unsurprisingly, has tipped the balance more in his team’s favor than any other player on any other team in MLS. Digging into goals added’s specific categories, Almada is in the top 10 for MLS in that statistic’s dribbling, passing, and shooting categories. He’s also second in the league in expected goals plus expected assists this year, only behind LAFC forward Dénis Bouanga.

Toss in another slew of advanced metrics where Almada rates highly and you've got a pretty clear picture of how dangerous this guy can be. He’s not just a free-kick wizard. He’s an attacking threat in every phase of the game.

Almada can impact the game in possession and from dead balls, but his best moments so far in 2023 have come in transition. Or, at least in these sorts of pseudo-transition moments where Atlanta United break through pressure and have a chance to attack downhill.

Take this sequence against Charlotte FC from Matchday 3, as an example. Charlotte pressure Miles Robinson while he’s on the ball, but their defensive shape is stretched. Seeing space between the lines, Almada shifts towards the strong side to provide Robinson with a passing option. Almada gets on the ball, taking several players out of the play and drawing several more inside before hitting Luiz Araújo in the right halfspace, then moving into the box and dummying the ball through to Caleb Wiley for the finish.

The whole goal has Almada’s fingerprints all over it.

Listed at 5-foot-7, which might even be a bit generous, Almada regularly uses his low center of gravity to dip out of tight spaces and knife past defenders. Despite his small size, he has an impressively large gravitational pull. Defenders can’t seem to help themselves from stepping toward the young Argentine. Opponents know Almada can shift right past them on the dribble, but they still feel pressured to step and defend him because of his ability to pass through them if they don’t.

This, folks, is what happens when you don’t step to Almada. Araújo does a lot of the heavy lifting on this goal, but the pass is still lovely.

Now, there’s a happy medium opposing defenses (especially Charlotte FC and the Portland Timbers in the last two matchdays) have yet to find. You can step to him while maintaining some semblance of defensive solidity. You can also drop off of him without caving your defensive structure in on itself.

Almada is going to have to prove he can maintain something close to his current level against more impressive MLS foes as the year goes on. But between his dribbling, passing, scoring threat, and work on dead balls, he’s the brightest star in MLS right now.

Who does Thiago Almada compare to?

Player comparisons are never apples to apples, but there are some helpful parallels we can draw from Almada’s game to a handful of players who already play at a high level on the other side of the Atlantic.

Using DAVIES, a model that measures a player’s value relative to their peers, Almada has a similar profile to Papu Gómez and Emi Buendia. All three of those players are Argentinian, but that’s not a factor in DAVIES’ breakdown. Instead, those three are grouped together because they all act as central creators, mostly operating in the half-spaces and pulling defenses apart with clever movement and on-ball actions. According to DAVIES, Almada, Gómez, and Buendia are all slightly below average defensive contributors, but add value in a wide variety of other attacking methods.

Gómez, who was a star in Serie A before moving to LaLiga's Sevilla, is an elite ball-progressor. He’s incredibly press-resistant and can pull strings in the attack. Buendia, who plays for Aston Villa in the Premier League, is another small, creative player. He’s among the best progressors in England. Almada provides more value on the dribble than either Gómez or Buendia, but all three are high-quality, narrow attackers.

At just 21, there’s still time for Almada to grow into an even better and more well-rounded player. But it’s already becoming clear he’s going to do big things at the game’s highest levels. He has a chance to reach – and even surpass – Gómez and Buendia…and to make Atlanta United a lot of money. A record-breaking amount of money, perhaps as soon as this summer.