GUADALAJARA, Mexico – Last week after Atlanta United’s first training session in Mexico, head coach Gonzalo Pineda made an interesting analogy about the team’s cohesion.
He compared preseason camp to being in the kitchen. He likened his players to a variety of ingredients and said that preseason was about trying to find the right mixture that would create the best flavor. Asked if there was a particular position or player he was looking at more closely than others, Pineda responded confidently that he was happy with the ingredients he has.
But then Pineda added another layer to his well-thought-out analogy.
“We have all the ingredients, which are great,” he said. “If we can bring the cherry for the cake, it's fantastic.”
It was a cheeky answer by the gaffer, but Pineda was portending a delectable development for the club: a layered, multi-dimensional, pleasing cake. And the cherry was put into place, so to speak, when the club announced the signing of Thiago Almada on Wednesday, a week after Pineda’s remark.
Almada is a midfielder from Argentina and is considered one of the top young talents in South America. He played 100 matches for Vélez Sarsfield, a premier club that plays at the top level in Argentina. During that span, Almada tallied 24 goals and 11 assists. This past season, he recorded nine goals and six assists. He’s even got time with the venerated Argentina men’s national team, making two appearances and one assist in the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics.
When it comes to his style of play, Almada is a dynamic playmaker. He has an innate attacking mindset, a quality that Pineda defined as “goal dangerous” in the press conference on Feb. 9 that followed the announcement.
“He’s very good at arriving inside the box, so we think that we’re going to have a lot more presence inside the box with him,” Pineda said.
For that reason, the team is eager to see him on the pitch. The 20-year-old is expected to fill the role of attacking midfielder for Atlanta United, a position that can play to his individual strengths and the team’s. In that spot, he can serve passes into Josef Martínez. He can set up Luiz Araújo. While he can play centrally, he can also move to the flank as a winger where he can take players on and deliver service to the box.
When asked about a timeline for Almada’s first appearance with Atlanta United, whether it could be in the team’s MLS home opener against Sporting Kansas City on Feb. 27, Pineda is hopeful but doesn’t want to push a time frame.
“I think whenever Thiago is ready to go,” Pineda said. “Obviously, we’re going to integrate him progressively also on the fitness side because we have to make sure that he’s healthy and fit for the rest of the season. So no rush, honestly. But at the same time, we are excited to see him on the field and connecting with the fans and all that. So, as soon as possible is my answer.”
Almada’s availability, like many other foreign players who come to play in MLS, is contingent on his visa. He'll be with the team in Mexico for the rest of the week, and then he’ll go through that process.
After that, it’ll be about integrating him with his new club, his new teammates and his new home. It can be a challenging step for a young player, moving to a new country where you don’t speak the language. The club plans to put things in place to support him, such as understanding the culture, learning what’s acceptable in the United States, and providing a mentor or someone he can go to bounce ideas off of.
“What we expect for him to come in is work hard, be a good teammate and give his best every day,” Vice President and Technical Director Carlos Bocanegra said. “We know what kind of quality he has, we know what he can do with the ball on the field… it’s trying to integrate him into the team, trying to get him comfortable and familiar with the players and his teammates around him as quickly as possible, so he can adapt.”
Pineda is especially interested to see how Almada connects with the other playmakers on the field, primarily Martínez and Araújo. And, although he’s been rehabbing an injury, Marcelino Moreno could also be added to the list. The connection between those attacking players will be critical to the team’s success – and could make Atlanta United incredibly fun to watch.
So far, Almada seems to be integrating well, less than 48 hours with Atlanta United. Pineda shared that the first thing Almada said to him was “I want to win championships,” which puts him right on par with the standards of the club. Almada’s been training, greeting members of the staff and participating actively in team events and meals. He met with players from the Liga Cordica 21 group who was at Club Atlas Colomos to watch training Wednesday afternoon.
And, as his fitness level builds, we’ll begin to see more and more of him and get a sense of that connection with the other attackers – and how the Almada specialty can potentially help Atlanta reach its goals.
“He’s flexible, our tactics are flexible, so I think we’re a perfect fit for Thiago,” Pineda said.
Watch highlights of Thiago Almada during his time at Vélez
Follow our daily updates from Mexico at atlutd.com/mexico.