Thiago Almada: Will he stay or will he go?
Atlanta United vice president and technical director Carlos Bocanegra doesn’t have a crystal ball, especially pertaining to Europe’s winter transfer market.
Yet for now, the Five Stripes plan on having their No. 10 when the 2024 MLS campaign begins.
“Things change, as you guys know, in the transfer window,” Bocanegra said during Friday’s year-end media availability. “If [offers] come in December, January, we'll have that conversation with the player. Does this offer fit? Is this the right place to go?
“But really with Thiago, we've created it where if he would like to stay and the right offer doesn't come and the right club does not come in for him, then he's okay to stay and he's happy here. I think that's great for us.
“We're planning on him coming back. Things can change. I don't want to say 100% he's back because that's how it works in the global football world. But great kid and at the moment we're counting on him being part of our group next year.”
Atlanta’s perspective follows steady rumors and speculation around Almada, their Argentine star who last winter became MLS’ first active FIFA World Cup champion when now-Inter Miami CF superstar Lionel Messi led their homeland to glory at Qatar 2022.
The 22-year-old parlayed that momentum into 2023 MLS Young Player of the Year honors, his 30 goal contributions (11g/19a) second-most in the league behind only FC Cincinnati’s Luciano Acosta, his fellow Landon Donovan MLS MVP finalist.
This all occurred in Almada’s second MLS season, having joined Atlanta in February 2022 from Vélez Sarsfield on a reported league-record inbound transfer ($16 million). And quickly, the conversation shifted towards whether Almada could surpass the league-record outbound transfer Atlanta set in January 2019 when sending Miguel Almirón to Premier League side Newcastle United for a reported $27 million.
The above may still come true for Almada, who’s been linked to a range of top European clubs. The summer and winter windows have their nuances, too.
“If top clubs and Champions League clubs are coming in for Thiago, it's more of a discussion with the player and we want to work together,” Bocanegra said.
“When we went down to recruit him in Argentina, my message to him was 'Hey, come here, use this as a building block, continue to build your profile, continue to play well and mark yourself on the league,' which he has done. Then, when that time comes and he also would like to make that transfer, we're going to work together on that. It's a decision that needs to be both parties involved and everybody feeling good about it.”
In part, that’s because Atlanta would need to succession plan for Almada, who occupies a Young Designated Player spot on their roster. Based on Bocanegra’s broader transfer market reflections, the Five Stripes would carefully consider any next moves.
“We still want to be active in that market with players like Thiago who has a lot of suitors in Europe and will eventually go and he's super exciting, he's fun to watch, he's dynamic, he's clearly one of the best players in the league,” Bocanegra said.
“We still want to have that ability. But as you see where te league is going, it's very difficult to have players come in and go quickly. You have to be able to have players who can stay a little bit longer and have that core of the team to build around. It's been really interesting to see the evolution of the league because players want to be here and they want to stay now, which was maybe not the case five, 10 years ago.”
This winter, Atlanta plan to strengthen their roster around a core that includes Almada and Greek international striker Giorgos Giakoumakis, the 2023 MLS Newcomer of the Year. Should the need arise, they’d adjust for a post-Almada world and continue to invest with hopes of recapturing their 2018 MLS Cup-winning glory days.
“The league is really evolving and you see the quality of players coming in, you see the money spent across multiple teams,” Bocanegra said. “It used to be Atlanta and maybe a couple of others spending a bit of money. But Columbus Crew – fair play to them, fantastic team this year [that] knocked us out – they've spent quite a bit of money up there on their team.
“You look across the league and people are spending. That's what we're noticing. It's a super competitive league and teams are becoming more complete. It used to be you could just throw money into the attack and you're just going to beat people. But that's not the case anymore.”
When Atlanta announced their year-end roster update, a high-profile name stood among those potentially not returning: Miles Robinson.
The US international center back is out of contract and 1) is eligible for MLS free agency and 2) reportedly has suitors across Europe.
Bocanegra said their contract offer remains on the table and it’s “[waiting for] a decision from Miles.” Atlanta also have an internal timeline to frame this decision.
“I want to make sure we can have a chat first to understand where both sides are, but we obviously know we can't wait all the way into January to have a decision,” Bocanegra said. “We also have to have some contingency plans.”
Asked about their coaching plans, Bocanegra said Gonzalo Pineda will remain for 2024. They’ve made the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs in two of Pineda’s three seasons in charge, including an Eastern Conference No. 6 spot in 2023 before suffering a Round One exit against Columbus.
“We look forward to building on the continuity and the cohesion we were able to build this year,” Bocanegra said.