1102 Almiron Feature

Life has a funny way of bringing people back together. Just ask Darren Eales, now the CEO of Newcastle United.

During the January 2019 transfer window, in its final hours, he helped Atlanta United gather a still-MLS-record $27 million outbound transfer fee from Newcastle for Miguel Almirón. The Paraguayan attacking midfielder, fresh off winning an MLS Cup title with the then-second-year club, fulfilled his dream Premier League move, swapping Georgia for northeast England.

The in-between years saw both Atlanta and Newcastle experience ups and downs, changes and challenges. Atlanta have gone through a few coaches and struggled to recapture their glory days, while Newcastle have floated midtable and now seem reborn under new ownership and manager Eddie Howe, with budgets booming. Almirón struggled to perhaps settle in as desired, his form ebbing and flowing during his first few seasons in the club’s iconic black and white stripes.

But now, as Eales is seeing firsthand after leaving his Atlanta president post this past August – returning to his native England after departing Tottenham Hotspur to help start an MLS expansion club from scratch – fortunes can change quickly. Almirón is one of the Premier League’s most in-form players, and his old-turned-new boss isn’t the only one who's grinning from ear to ear.

“I always joke because I've got twin boys who were about 4 at the time we had him in Atlanta,” Eales told MLSsoccer.com via a Zoom call. “They love Miggy and we'd have kickarounds on the pitch for all the players and staff after a game.

“Miggy would grab James and Edmund and hug him, so when we sold him to Newcastle I was the mean dad who got rid of Miggy. So to be honest, one of the factors in taking the Newcastle job, I was glad to be able to say to them, 'Yeah I've got you back with Miggy.'”

Eales couldn’t hide his Almirón-centric excitement when exploring the Newcastle job, too.

“I had to be careful when I was coming to check out the club before I signed, that I didn't set any hairs running,” Eales continued. “But then I officially accepted the job and the team was out on preseason.

“Dan Ashworth, our sporting director, was next to Miggy on the team coach as they were going off to their training session and doing the video call saying it's official now. He was so friendly and smiley that it's a delight.”

Those quick stories, part old friends reuniting and part getting the band back together, help explain one of the Premier League’s biggest success stories during the 2022-23 season. Almirón has six goals in his last six games, surely sparked – to some degree – by comments from Manchester City midfielder Jack Grealish painting "playing like Almirón” as an insult toward teammate Riyad Mahrez’s performance. But the historic club sits fourth in the EPL standings, dreaming of obtaining UEFA Champions League nights for the first time since the 2003-04 season.

Those around Atlanta and Almirón knew these days would come. They seemed inevitable.

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"He's the Paraguayan Di María"

Almirón wasn’t Atlanta’s first Designated Player – that title belongs to Argentine winger Hector “Tito” Villalba – but landing the now-28-year-old from Lanus was still a coup for the Five Stripes. Signing one of the Argentine Primera División’s top talents delighted then-head coach Tata Martino.

“I remember talking with Tata and my Spanish is terrible, but he used the word 'crack,'” Eales recalled. “It's the first time I heard him use it, when we said we thought Miggy might be someone we could get.

“ … It was a very important signing for us with the style we played, under Tata with the press. Miggy is someone who thrives in that type of environment, so you could see Tata's eyes light up when we mentioned his name. You could see the wheels spinning in his head of how he'd be able to play with him in the team.”

Martino isn't the only one who once jumped at the chance to sign Almirón. Guillermo Barros Schelotto, now his national team coach with Paraguay, was leading Lanus and heard about this wiry, dynamic attacker coming through at Paraguay’s Cerro Porteño back in the mid-2010s.

As Schelotto tells it, Lanus were hoping to sign current Boca Juniors goalkeeper Agustin Rossi from Argentina’s Chacarita Juniors. But the terms didn’t work out, so money became available to spend elsewhere. Their attention was quickly seized.

“[Lanus president Alejandro Marón] told me about Almirón and he gave me a video to watch,” said the former LA Galaxy head coach and 2008 MLS MVP with the Columbus Crew.

“It was an hour-long video, but I only watched for five minutes and I called him back and said, 'Alejandro, this is the young player we need to get. Get him now. He's the Paraguayan [Ángel] Di María. Literally.' The next day the president went to Paraguay to get him.”

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Miguel Almiron celebrates winning MLS Cup 2018. (Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports)

The Di María comparison – a winger whose résumé spans several World Cups with Argentina, famed club stops with Real Madrid, PSG and more – is one Schelotto is particularly drawn to. A No. 10 in his playing days, the Argentine-born manager elaborated on the analogy.

“His physical presence, his movements and his technique are the same,” Schelotto said of the left-footed attackers. “We were able to see that up close at Lanus and see that he was a special player. Newcastle for him was just a matter of time. He had to take that next step, just like he did when we moved from Paraguay to Argentina. He had to take a step from MLS to the Premier League and it was only a matter of time."

That confidence was also expressed by Martino, who is now Mexico’s head coach and preparing El Tri for the 2022 World Cup. They shared two years in Atlanta, from 2017-18, driving forces behind the club’s rise from a hopeful idea for top-flight soccer in America’s SEC football country to one that now owns almost every attendance record in the league.

"I have a special weakness for Miguel,” Martino began. “First of all, he is a phenomenon as a footballer. He's a professional who works as if he was the least experienced player in the team. I told him that when he was going to sign with Atlanta.

“I am not surprised at all with his current form in the Premier League and surely it will be even better for him as he'll continue evolving because he is a person, professionally speaking, who is very ambitious, so he'll keep growing."

The Atlanta days, the Lanus days – they’re about far more than on-field success, though.

"Miggy would run around like crazy"

Ask around about Almirón’s first training sessions in MLS, experiencing a new country for a team with literally no history, and there’s a common refrain.

“At first, it was, ‘Man this goofy-looking, smiling, super skinny dude – what is up with this kid?’” recalled former Atlanta captain Michael Parkhurst, who retired after the 2019 MLS campaign. “Then you see him on the field and I've genuinely never seen someone faster with the ball. That was shocking. Holy smokes, his change of pace and ability to break away on the ball was something I've never seen, incredible.”

A similar story comes from Jeff Larentowicz, who sits top-10 in all-time MLS appearances.

“You talk about Parky saying how thin he was – if there wasn't a shirt on top of him I don't know if there would be anything there because he was so thin,” noted Larentowicz, who spent 2017-20 with Atlanta before retiring. “He still does it, but he kind of curls his back when he runs, just so that there's even less of him to try and grab onto. That's just what I remember, that he'd gain a half-yard of separation and then arch his back and sort of take off. There was no catching him then.”

Almirón, in many ways, is still that skinny kid from Paraguay. He’s listed at roughly 5-foot-9 and 140 pounds, hardly an imposing physique. But the way he thinks through the game, the intensity he’d bring to Atlanta training sessions, was what people remember most.

Julian Gressel, a German wingback who’s now with Vancouver Whitecaps FC, asserts as much. He was then an ambitious rookie trying to earn his place after being the No. 8 pick in the MLS SuperDraft, going from Providence College to the pros.

“The day before the game, we would do this drill in practice,” Gressel explained. “It was this stupid, fun game to get the spirits up. I would be in goal, for example, and everybody would play out of position. Some staff would play, it was something like 13 vs. 13 on half field, very light and nothing demanding. But Miggy would run around like crazy, trying to win the game so badly. That drive to win and get better was always there for him.

“ … Or I remember going into the gym in the morning and he would always be there,” Gressel continued. “He was super skinny, but he'd be doing extra core work or whatever to supplement what he did on the field. It was impressive, to be honest, to see that out of a DP who was coming in on a big salary, on a big transfer fee. It was more those moments. His intensity and his want to win, even if it was soccer-tennis, that's what was always there.”

And there were bits of humor that jumped out as well, both in training and beyond.

“I remember one time, it was in 2019 just before he left – he was still with us in preseason, hadn't been transferred yet,” Parkhurst said. “He absolutely blew by me and I knew he was going hard, not letting up. He's walking back and I see him laughing, shaking his head going 'Old man, old man.' So maybe at that point it was like, 'maybe this is my last year.'”

Larentowicz said Almirón “always had a sly, side-eye smirk and that's just his confidence coming out.” He knew he was Atlanta’s best player alongside striker Josef Martinez, but brought it every day at training. That cultivated respect and admiration, injecting some light-hearted fun into the equation as well.

“We had this WhatsApp chat and there'd be jokes flying around,” recalled Larentowicz, who’s now working with FC Cincinnati’s academy program. “But Miguel would never reply in English, he would reply with gifs that we've never, ever seen before. Just the most random stuff that Spanish-language guys got.

“But without fail, even if it was like 'dinner is tonight at 7:30' and nobody would respond, there was Miguel with some bizarre gif that made no sense. I'll always remember that.”

Miguel’s a footballer though, clearly a talented one. To gather his whole essence in Atlanta, people turn to the goals.

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"That was absurd"

While playing for the Five Stripes, Almirón was a two-time MLS Best XI selection, a two-time MLS All-Star, the 2017 Newcomer of the Year and a two-time finalist for the Landon Donovan MLS MVP award. Across two seasons, he appeared in 70 matches across all competitions and scored 22 goals with 30 assists.

Everyone at Atlanta, from teammates to those behind the scenes, has a favorite memory they turn to. And most stem from early 2017 games at Bobby Dodd Stadium, the American football venue on Georgia Tech’s campus. Specifically a 4-1 rout of Houston Dynamo FC in which Almirón scored a hat trick to bust out of a goalscoring slump.

“One of them was wild,” said Larentowicz. “He got the ball at the top of the box, he was surrounded by three guys and he was a little fortunate to get away from the first one that was deflected in between defenders. But it just comes to him perfectly and it happens in an instant where he lashes it to the top corner.

“I thought, holy s--t that was a goal you don't often see.”

Parkhurst expanded on that May 2017 match, when the MLS world’s eyes were opened to the talent Almirón possesses.

“One goal was better than the other,” Parkhurst said. “It was just so electric there. It was the beginning of creating that bond between him and the city, the supporters – and also the electric atmosphere that was there. It was the style of play that he and Josef and Tito brought to the team, so I’ll always think back to that goal.”

There are also strong memories of a goal Almirón didn’t score, from their first-ever match. It was similarly held at Bobby Dodd Stadium, a 2-1 defeat to eventual rivals New York Red Bulls in early March 2017.

“We were up 1-0 and he had a breakaway. He tried to chip the keeper and it didn't come off, either went too high or right into the keeper's hands or something,” Gressel said. “If he scored that, we probably win the game, up 2-0 and then the Red Bulls probably aren’t coming back. We end up losing 2-1, but I remember it was almost a catapult for him of ‘I have to score that goal, this is on me. Let's go.’”

Eales shared a comparable impression from the same game.

“Miggy had a run through the middle in the second half,” Eales relayed. “It was his classic acceleration and the whole place was buzzing. He tried one of those chips and it didn't quite come off, but that was a moment right then when it's our first game and you can sense that excitement in the stadium as soon as he got the ball. It's a bit like when Pele missed that goal everyone remembers where he went around the goalkeeper and didn't actually score.”

Others point to Atlanta’s first-ever win, a 6-1 rout of fellow 2017 expansion side Minnesota United FC. Almirón had a brace and Martinez bagged a hat trick, having a blast in the snow-filled match at the University of Minnesota’s football stadium.

And perhaps more subtly, there’s a 4-0 rout of the LA Galaxy in mid-September as the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs became a clear possibility for the first-year club. In a full sprint, as halftime rolled around at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Almirón latched onto a Yamil Asad through ball behind the Galaxy’s backline. Just outside the 18-yard box, with his first touch, he scooped the ball over onrushing goalkeeper Jon Kempin at a full sprint.

“The casual soccer fan might not think of how difficult that was, especially playing on turf,” Parkhurst said. “But the rest of us in the locker room are laughing about it like, 'You have to be kidding me.' He could have dribbled around them, was on a breakaway, but he scooped it. But, hey, that's Miguel.”

One of England’s best-ever left backs, playing for LA after storied stops at Arsenal and Chelsea, agreed.

“At halftime, Ashley Cole walked over to him,” Larentowicz said, “and was like, ‘What the f--k are you doing man? That was absurd.’”

"It's before him and after him"

As Almirón’s profile grew in MLS, transfer interest followed suit. In December 2018, Eales even generated some headlines when saying their Paraguayan attacker wouldn’t be sold for “chump change.” And ATLUTD had Pity Martinez on the back burner, a signing from River Plate and the 2018 South American Footballer of the Year. That gave them four DPs for three spots, so something had to budge.

Eales’ guarantee proved true, with Newcastle’s offer sheet deemed satisfactory for a record-breaking transfer on Jan. 31, 2019, one that offered a proof of concept. Atlanta have been intentional in signing young South American talents, intending to transfer them onto brighter pastures when the time is right – and there’s no better example of that strategy across the league than Almirón.

“Miggy was the first of that new breed and now look, there's lots of clubs doing great scouting, bringing strong players in,” Eales said. “The talent in the league is getting better each year. … There's also a sense of when Miggy is doing well and scoring for Newcastle, there's a sense of pride from MLS and Atlanta that he's a player who developed through the league. MLS is part of the ecosystem, no different to how it is in most other countries in the world.”

Schelotto conveyed a related sense of vindication, that Almirón is not just an everyday transfer for MLS as its 27th season nears its conclusion.

"It's difficult to find that type of quality player,” said the Boca Juniors legend. “Then, once you find him, it's difficult to give him the necessary time to develop. He was fortunate to get that time with us. He started off well, then not so well, and wanted to leave, but then he started showing a great level [at Atlanta]. Now he's a top goalscorer and a star in the Premier League."

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Josef Martinez and Miguel Almirón celebrate "Dragon Ball Z" style. (John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports)

Big picture, there are plenty of takeaways about where MLS has been and where it’s heading.

“Miguel is the model signing for the league,” Gressel said. “He came in as a big-time young signing, took on a project and was willing to work and fully bought into it. That's maybe the problem for some DPs here, even younger ones, that they see the millions come into their bank account and feel like life is good here. Perhaps I don't need to take the next step so quickly or work as hard for it.

“Maybe they're not as bought into what the coach is doing like Miguel was with Tata. A lot of factors are at play there, but Miggy is the model and teams are trying to find that every year when they go out and try to sign a DP. Especially if they get a younger DP, they want to sell him on where it's a different story to getting an experienced DP they want to keep for longer.”

Replicating a signing of Almirón’s caliber is far easier said than done, of course. He’s the watermark, the standard everyone is chasing. But seeing what he’s accomplishing with Newcastle, and as more MLS sides swing for the fences with club-record deals and the like, perhaps another situation is waiting to take off.

“In the league, there was before Miguel and now there's after Miguel,” Larentowicz said. “I don't think you could get a single GM in a room and say when you're thinking about signing a DP and want true impact, that they wouldn't say 'Yeah just like Almirón.'

“ … I think now, especially at Atlanta United, you're always going to be compared to what I see as the top DP in that DP era of young ones coming from South America. That was Miguel, so it's before him and after him.”

Should those players eventually reach Almirón’s level, perhaps they’ll have a Premier League fanbase singing their praises too. Atlanta provided him with rocket fuel, and now there’s no telling where his career goes – at St. James' Park or beyond.

“What you're seeing now is the whole Newcastle fanbase, like the Atlanta fanbase, they're on Miggy's side because he's a player who pours his heart and soul onto the performance on the pitch,” Eales said.

“So I think he's so smiley and lights up the stadium when he scores a goal, even more so now the fans are on his side because they know it wasn't easy in his first few seasons. Now they see Miggy really lighting it up. They feel that sense of pleasure for him as well because he's such a great lad.”

Edgar Acero contributed to the reporting of this story.