Thiago Almada scores for Argentina as Lionel Messi hits 800 career goals

Thiago Almada Argentina

Forget the future. Thiago Almada is a player for Argentina’s present.

Atlanta United’s star midfielder scored a 78th-minute game-winning goal in La Albiceleste’s first match since winning the FIFA 2022 World Cup, slotting home the rebound from Lionel Messi’s free kick that struck the crossbar. Almada, 21, subbed into Thursday's 2-0 win over Panama at halftime for Brighton midfielder Alexis Mac Allister – only to bag his first senior-level international strike while earning his third cap.

Messi, who’s linked with a possible summertime move to Inter Miami CF as his Paris Saint-Germain contract expires after the 2022-23 European season, bent home a trademark free kick in the 89th minute for his 800th career goal (club or country), doubling Argentina's advantage.

World Cup winner

The game was played before a sold-out Estadio Monumental in Buenos Aires, continuing the nationwide party since Argentina’s World Cup title in early December. That’s when Lionel Scaloni’s team won a game for the ages, needing penalty kicks after battling France to a legendary 3-3 draw.

Almada played just six group-stage minutes as a substitute during the Qatar-based World Cup, getting the call-up as an injury replacement. That followed a 2022 MLS Newcomer of the Year campaign with Atlanta after a reported league-record $16 million transfer from Argentine side Vélez Sarsfield.

For his exploits in Qatar, Almada became MLS's 13th-ever and first active World Cup-winning player.

What's next?

That World Cup experience has invigorated Almada, who has won two of four Player of the Matchday presented by Continental Tire awards in the 2023 campaign's early days. With four goals and four assists, he's emerged as the clear Landon Donovan MLS MVP frontrunner for the Eastern Conference-leading Five Stripes.

Now, buzz continues over whether Almada might set an MLS-record outgoing transfer – possibly as soon as this summer. The current mark is held by former Atlanta star Miguel Almirón, who moved to English Premier League side Newcastle United in the winter of 2019 for a reported $27 million.

Almada and Argentina have one more game during the international break, hosting Curaçao and Columbus Crew goalkeeper Eloy Room on March 28. With that commitment, Almada will miss Atlanta's Matchday 5 contest at Columbus (Saturday, 7:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass).