Almada relishes World Cup win, looks forward to MLS season

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Atlanta United’s Thiago Almada speaks during MLS soccer media day, Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023, in San Jose, Calif. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

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Atlanta United’s Thiago Almada speaks during MLS soccer media day, Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023, in San Jose, Calif. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

At first, he shared the news with his family, crying with joy. Then Thiago had to catch a plane in Alma. Quick.

The Atlanta United midfielder has been called up as an injury replacement for Argentina’s World Cup team just days before their opening match.

“I was a little surprised. The call made me cry,” he said. “Then the first thing I did was tell my family and then I had to travel that night.”

After a whirlwind campaign in Qatar that ended with Argentina lifting the game’s most prestigious trophy, Almada returned for his second season with Atlanta United in Major League Soccer.

Almada is the first MLS player to win the World Cup. Twelve other MLS players have won international soccer’s biggest trophy, including David Villa, Thierry Henry, Andrea Pirlo and Bastian Schweinsteiger, but none were in the league when they did so.

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Argentina’s successful run at the World Cup had a rocky start, with a surprising loss to Saudi Arabia in their opening game. Some called it one of the biggest upsets of the tournament.

For Almada, this loss made the eventual title win all the sweeter.

“It was a shock for us to lose a game we controlled for most of the game and they scored two goals in five minutes. But I think it served us well,” Almada said through a translator. “We were able to raise our heads and stay on the path we wanted. And yes, it just allowed us to come together.”

Almada, 21, only earned his first call-up to the national team in September, but he has caught the eye of Lionel Messi, who praised him as both fresh and fast.

“Very mischievous,” Messi told reporters. “He’s not afraid of anything.”

In Qatar, Almada appeared in the group stage with Argentina’s 2:0 victory over Poland. He later said, “I’m the luckiest kid in the world.”

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Now he’s back in the US training with Atlanta in preparation for the MLS season, which starts on February 25.

“I think the best thing he can do is put his feet down and he’s shown that from the first day he’s been with us in 2023. He was on time for every meal, every training,” said coach Gonzalo Pineda. “He’s doing everything that’s normal. He is very humble and I like that. Therefore, I would like to keep him with this small hunger.”

Almada signed with Atlanta in February 2022 for an MLS-record $16 million transfer fee. Six goals and 12 assists in his first season at United earned him the league’s Rookie of the Year award.

While Almada did well individually, Atlanta finished 10-14-10, 11th in the Eastern Conference standings and missing the playoffs for the second time in three years.

The team took steps to improve with the hiring of President Garth Lagerwey from the Seattle Sounders, but the recent acquisition of Josef Martinez, who later signed with Inter Miami, caused concern among fans.

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Almada remains a key element in United’s attacking midfield alongside goalkeeper Brad Guzan and defensive midfielder Ozzie Alonso. Vice president Carlos Bocanegra said the team was actively looking for a striker this week.

“My goal is to have a great season as a group,” Almada said. “So we want to have a great pre-season, then take it game by game, try to get into the play-offs and hopefully finish it off with the title at the end of the season.”

He said he believes it won’t be long before more World Cup winners play in the league. And surely MLS as a whole will be lifted by the next World Cup, which the United States will co-host with Canada and Mexico.

“A lot of MLS players were at the World Cup. More young, talented players are coming here,” he said. “So I think the gap between MLS and these big European leagues is getting smaller and smaller.”


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