Incredible moments happen in soccer – and happen frequently when your team has a player like Thiago Almada.
Almada’s first goal in Saturday’s 5-1 over Portland Timbers was voted this week's MLS AT&T 5G Goal of the Matchday, winning in a landslide with 88.6 percent of the vote. Right before the halftime break, Atlanta United drew a penalty and earned a direct free kick. From around 35 yards out, the Argentine curled a spectacular shot that banked into the upper right corner. The goal was Almada's third on the season and second on a direct free kick.
The strike was particularly impressive because it was executed with such precision from a significant distance. For many of Almada’s teammates and coaches, they could just sit back and admire.
“I wasn’t expecting honestly a shot,” head coach Gonzalo Pineda said. “Then, I saw the little 3-man wall that we are working on putting there just kind of distracting their goalkeeper and even the wall of the opponent. I thought Thiago was crossing the ball, actually. And then he does that fantastic shot. Just top of the corner. I was just like any other fan in the building just enjoying that free kick.”
The finish reminded Atlanta goalkeeper Brad Guzan of one of the world’s best free kick takers: Almada’s teammate on the World Cup winning Argentina men’s national team and superstar Lionel Messi. In the Copa America semifinal match against the United States in 2016, Messi scored a free kick goal remarkably like Almada’s. The shot was taken with Messi’s left foot (Almada’s was with his right), but Messi curled the ball into the upper right corner, and on the goalkeeper’s side, just like Almada did on Saturday.
And who was in goal for the U.S. to defend Messi’s kick? None other than Atlanta’s own, big bald wall.
“You have to respect someone of that talent and that quality,” Guzan said. “As a goalkeeper, you’re hoping that if they go over the wall, so be it. But you try not to go back to your side. But sometimes even in that moment, the slightest little shift of your weight onto one foot, that’s all they need. And those are fine moments.”
Knowing firsthand what it means to try and stop a world-class free kick, Guzan was glad he was on the other side of the pitch this time around.
“That certainly flashed in my mind in that moment, but I was happy to be standing where I was in the other goal. It’s a fantastic free kick, so hat’s off to him,” Guzan said.
Derrick Etienne Jr. had a different view of Almada’s goal. He didn’t enter the match until the second half, so at the time he was on the Atlanta United bench, on the same side of the pitch that Almada took the free kick.
“My jaw dropped,” he said. “I was like, this guy’s different.”
Etienne has seen his fair share of quality goals from free kicks. Before joining Atlanta United as a free agent this offseason, he was with the Columbus Crew for three seasons. The Crew have one of the best free kick takers in the league in Lucas Zelarayán. He scored the longest free kick in MLS history last season.
Sitting next to Miguel Berry on the bench, Etienne mentioned his former teammate and wondered if Almada could match him. As it turned out, he could.
“Those guys are unstoppable, they’re lethal on set pieces,” Etienne said. “So I think it just adds another element to our game with the tricky guys that we have, with the quality that we have in the final third that we can score from any type of chances.”
Franco Ibarra had an even closer view of the free kick. He was part of the three-main wall designed to block the goalkeeper's vision. Ibarra said that his reaction was just like everyone else’s -- astonished but also not surprised given Almada’s skill and work ethic.
“It was an incredible golazo,” he said. “We all know the quality of player that Thiago is. I’m very happy for him because what’s good for him is also good for the team. It’s amazing, but we see him out here every day in training, so we know the kind of player he is.”
Coming into Saturday’s match, Almada had already scored one direct free kick for Atlanta United this season, the game-winner in second-half stoppage time against San Jose Earthquakes in the season opener. At the time, a game-winning direct free kick seemed like a tough goal to top, but Almada said he doesn’t think he’s ever hit a free kick better than he did against Portland.
The midfielder said that he felt confident in the moment after taking some in practice with backup goalkeeper Clément Diop.
“Yesterday I was practicing free kicks with Clément [Diop] and I was taking them and trying to see where he would go and try and get him to go to the opposite post with my eyes. So just seeing and trying to get the goalkeeper to go the other way,” Almada said.
After Almada’s free kick went in, he celebrated by running over to the Atlanta United bench. There, head athletic trainer Mario Cruz was waiting for him. Almada ran to him, pointing to his ankle, and jumped into Cruz’s open arms to celebrate.
“In the past, I’ve had pain in my ankle and Mario and the training staff helped me a lot. I’ve played with pain, and the training staff has helped me, so that’s why I went to celebrate with him,” Almada said.
GOLAZO: Thiago Almada scores an incredible goal from a free kick