And Miguel Almiron, as supremely gifted as he is, is clearly not at all the sort to promote himself, as the media hordes in town for Saturday’s MLS Cup final have learned from the reclusive 24-year-old’s obvious hesitance to drop pithy soundbytes like other players taking part in this matchup.
But talk to players, coaches and executives around the league about him, and a fairly clear consensus emerges: The soft-spoken Paraguayan playmaker is the best player in MLS, period.
“Everyone in the league knows Almiron,” Portland Timbers defensive midfielder Diego Chara told MLSsoccer.com on Friday, one day before he attempts to stifle the Atlanta United star in the 2018 MLS Cup at Mercedes-Benz Stadium (FOX, UniMás, TSN 1/3/5, TVAS). “He is a fast player, you have to be in focus all the time on him.
“In this game, that’s my role: Try to stop him.”
Atlanta captain Michael Parkhurst has plied his trade both in MLS and abroad in the Danish and German league over the past 14 years, and offers effusive praise for his current No. 10.
“He might be the best player I’ve ever played with, when it’s all said and done,” he said of Almiron at MBS on Friday. “He’s special, he really is. He can turn a game by himself. He puts so much pressure on a back line. You have to be so wary of where he is, because especially on this turf, if he’s able to get the ball and turn, you’ve already lost.
“He’s faster with the ball than most players are without the ball. So he’s a defender’s best friend, because you can give it to him and [say] ‘hey, release pressure for us.’ But on the opposite side he’s a defender’s worst nightmare, because when he’s running with the ball 1-on-1 against you, you don’t have much of a chance.”
Almiron has been the driving force behind ATLUTD’s runaway success in their two years of existence, orchestrating their explosive attack and delighting their legions of fans with his skill, vision and dynamism. Along the way he in turn has been charmed by his new city, enough to pen a heartfelt tribute to the ATL in the Players’ Tribune.
“I thought the decision I made last year was a good one,” Almiron told reporters on Thursday. “Because I feel very happy here not for anything we achieved, but for the human qualities I've encountered in the United States, in Atlanta. I think this is more important."
He’s also a centerpiece of the club’s long-term vision of acquiring young talent that can not only win games, but eventually be sold on elsewhere for tidy profits.
And with Almiron having racked up 21 goals and 28 assists in 62 regular-season appearances, two MLS Best XI nods and this year’s Latino del Año award, he now stands one more match-winning performance away from a league title on home turf in what could possibly mark his final game in Five Stripes as myriad reports and rumors link him to overseas suitors. The 2018 MLS Cup is already confirmed to be the swan song for influential head coach Tata Martino.
Club president Darren Eales – who has a track record of hard bargaining at his previous employer, Tottenham Hotspur – has repeatedly warned would-be buyers that only an “amazing offer” would even be considered for ATL’s crown jewel, with mooted figures north of $20 million bandied about. It’s also possible that Atlanta could convince Almiron to stick around long enough to spearhead a run in next year’s Concacaf Champions League, a tournament they’re keen to make their mark in.
But the man they call “Miggy” around the Children's Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground has made no secret of his European plans. And all parties seem to agree that it’s a question of when, not if, he makes the move to England, Spain or another of the old continent’s big leagues.
A trophy hoist would provide a storybook conclusion to his MLS chapter, and Almiron figures to be a key protagonist in Sunday’s final, where the lion’s share of an expected crowd of 70,000-plus will roar the hosts on.
“I don't know that I see it as pressure, but I think it's something very special to be able to finish it off here in Atlanta in front of our people,” said Almiron of the magnitude of the occasion. “They deserve this happiness for the two years they've been supporting us.
Almiron celebrates a goal with his teammates at Mercedes-Benz Stadium | USA Today Sports Images
“After the first six months that I was here, what surprised me most was the people and the support they give us every day. And I remember the [inaugural MLS match] against [the New York] Red Bulls that we lost in the first game. But the fans still continued to support us all the same, and this means a lot to us.”
Many pundits have discussed how he and the Five Stripes have raised the bar for other MLS clubs. But whatever Saturday’s result – and whether he stays or goes this winter – Almiron has also already set the standard for his club as well.
“He’s a guy that works really hard, that wants to win more than anything else,” said teammate Julian Gressel on Friday. “I see him sometimes in in the gym whenever I get there, this is hours before training. So he’s a good guy who is very humble, and pretty quiet at the start. But once you get to know him, once he kind of establishes himself in the locker room, he’s a great guy to be around. I think the thing that sticks out is that he wants to win and he wants to perform well on the weekend.
“He’s definitely the best player I’ve played with. Definitely the most talented. The things he creates for us are vital to what we’ve done in the playoffs and what we’ve done through the whole year. he’s a guy that we can’t really replace, and I think that pays a lot of tribute to him … he just has that extra edge to him that not a lot of guys have.”