You know by now that Atlanta United have lost Miguel Almiron for at least a few weeks, with the star Paraguayan going down in their 2-0 win against the Montreal Impact on Sunday with a hamstring injury.
The 23-year-old attacking midfielder was perhaps a victim of Atlanta’s much-discussed busy stretch, a brutal run of eight games in 23 days that will continue Wednesday night at Mercedes-Benz Stadium against the Philadelphia Union (7 pm ET; MLS LIVE).
A front-runner for the MLS Newcomer of the Year award and a safe bet for a spot on the league’s Best XI, Almiron has been excellent for Atlanta in 2017. The free-ranging midfielder leads the expansion club with 13 assists and is third on the Five Stripes with nine goals in 29 appearances.
He brings much more to Atlanta than ability with the final pass and a cool finishing touch, however. The slight, speedy attacker is their attacking nerve center, the first outlet on their devastating counterattacks and their metronome in the final third.
He sets the pace for their attack, leading Atlanta and clocking in at fifth in the league with 25.23 passes in the final third per 90 minutes according to Opta. Yamil Asad is the only other Atlanta player averaging more than 15.1 final third passes per 90; he’s slightly behind Almiron with 24.4 attempts per game.
Those aren’t empty numbers, either. Whether he’s in the middle or flashing wide, Almiron is dangerous with plenty of those passes. Opposing defenders, of course, know this, and they're pulled into his orbit accordingly.
Look at that play from Atlanta’s 3-0 win against FC Dallas on Sept. 10. See how Dallas center backs Matt Hedges and Walker Zimmerman and defensive midfielder Carlos Gruezo are all drawn to Almiron as he receives the ball with his back to goal near the top of the box? That position isn’t too threatening, but Almiron’s quality forces all three FCD defenders toward him. That gravitational pull leaves plenty of space for Asad to rocket a shot off the crossbar after Almiron smartly found him with a first-time layoff.
For as good as he is on the ball, Almiron’s value to Atlanta begins with his defensive work. He’s perhaps the key to head coach Tata Martino’s high-press system, tirelessly pressuring from the front to funnel opponents into bad spots where it’s easier for Atlanta’s defenders to win the ball. He’s also plenty capable of winning it back himself, recovering the ball an average of 6.16 times per 90 minutes. That’s a pretty remarkable number, good for second on Atlanta behind center back Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and eighth in the league among attacking midfielders.
He put his ability and instincts on display against poor Hernan Grana later in that win against FCD.
Atlanta’s entire front four works hard, but Almiron pulls off that sort of move – a pickpocket near midfield, a dead on-ball sprint toward goal followed by a shot off the bar – far more often than Asad, Martinez or Tito Villalba.
Atlanta don’t have a real replacement for him. Their best option is probably to move Asad into the middle from his usual spot on the wing and let the Argentine attempt a rough approximation of his fellow South American. Asad has been excellent this year, but he’s not at the same level as Almiron.
With his on-field pull, transcendent on-ball quality and defensive effort and smarts, Almiron makes things easier for every Atlanta player. He's their heartbeat, as Jeff Larentowicz put it after Sunday's match. Without him on the field, things just won’t tick quite as well.