Foreign Leagues

How Atlanta United’s Miguel Almirón Can Make the Difference in MLS

 • by Graham Ruthven
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Not so long ago Miguel Almirón interested the Premier League elite. Arsenal and Chelsea in particular were keen on the Paraguayan midfielder while he was at Lanus in Argentina last year, with some outlets claiming the Gunners had even agreed personal terms with the player. It was therefore something of a surprise when Almirón instead signed for Atlanta United.

His arrival in Georgia was a landmark moment for Major League Soccer. Atlanta United broke the league’s transfer record for a single player to sign Almirón for their expansion season, making him their figurehead and poster boy. It was an ambitious signing to define an ambitious franchise, perhaps the most ambitious expansion franchise in MLS history.

Almirón made his MLS debut against the New York Red Bulls on the opening weekend of the 2017 season, with Atlanta United losing out 2-1. It was against Minnesota United on Sunday, however, that the 23-year-old truly announced his arrival in North America, scoring twice and generally sparkling in a 6-1 win over the Loons.

Miguel Almiron and Yamil Asad celebrate Atlanta United's first ever MLS goal

MLS has a new superstar and he embodies the mould from which Designated Players are now being forged from. At 23, he is young and will only improve from this point on, with Atlanta committing a large chunk of their wage bill to capture Almirón. This is the route MLS clubs are now going down when it comes to filling their DP slots. The retirement image has been well and truly shed.

Indeed, Atlanta United are bullish about their aims and targets going forward, with everything from their state-of-the-art stadium still under construction to their new $60 million training facility highlighting the ambition of the club. Almirón has been held aloft as the sporting embodiment of that drive.

“Our club’s ambition is to acquire quality players heading into their peak playing years and Miguel’s youth and ability absolutely speak to that,” Atlanta United president Darren Eales explained upon the club’s signing of Almirón.

“He’s highly regarded as one of the top young players in South America and we couldn’t be happier that he has chosen to continue his already impressive career here in Atlanta.”

Atlanta United's Josef Martinez has an attempt at goal

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In Almirón and Josef Martínez, the Venezuelan striker on loan from Torino, Atlanta United have a duo to crack open any opponent in MLS. Both players are relentless in their movement, pressing high up the pitch and forcing opposition defenders into mistakes. It just so happens that they are also ruthless in capitalising on those mistakes, as they demonstrated in their combined five goals against fellow expansion side Minnesota United at the weekend.

The manner of Almirón’s two goals were reflective of his performance as a whole – emphatic and dripping with self-confidence and quality. His first one found the smallest of gaps at the near post, lashing home a finish from an acutely tight angle. His second was even better, though, smashing a half-volley high into the roof of the net from the edge of the penalty box. There will surely be more of that to come before the season is out.

Of course, it’s far too early to be tipping Almirón for the league’s MVP award, but it’s difficult to envisage that another newcomer will have the same impact this season that the Paraguayan will. He has the quality to sit on the same perch as David Villa and Sebastian Giovinco as an MLS star of the very highest caliber.

Atlanta’s signing of Almirón could prove to be so successful it sets a precedent for the rest of the league. The link between South America and MLS has long been established, but increasingly clubs in North America are now committing DP wages to players from Brazil, Argentina and surrounding countries.

Look at New York City FC, for instance. Their clout could have seen them quite easily sign a big-name European talent to fill the gap left by Frank Lampard, who retired at the end of last season. Instead, they opted to sign Argentinian international Maxi Moralez, with the former Atalanta and Velez Sarsfield player already proving his worth in his opening two MLS appearances.

The Seattle Sounders also looked south last season to sign Nicolás Lodeiro from Boca Juniors, with the Uruguayan international providing the catalyst for the play-off run that took them all the way to MLS Cup glory. After years of targeting fading stars of the European game, it is dawning on MLS clubs that the best value is to be found in the South American market.

Almirón might turn out to be the shrewdest signing of the bunch, even if the $8 million paid to Lanus made him the most expensive transfer in MLS history. His performance against Minnesota suggests that fee may one day look to be something of a bargain.

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