Atlanta United exercises option, signs Thiago Almada

The transfer was one of the more complicated in MLS team’s history
Thiago Almada  (left) of Argentina's Velez Sarsfield and Gustavo Henrique of Brazil's Flamengo battle for the ball during a Copa Libertadores soccer match in May 2021. Ending a monthslong pursuit, Atlanta United exercised its MLS option to acquire Almada on Wednesday. (Antonio Lacerda/AP)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Thiago Almada (left) of Argentina's Velez Sarsfield and Gustavo Henrique of Brazil's Flamengo battle for the ball during a Copa Libertadores soccer match in May 2021. Ending a monthslong pursuit, Atlanta United exercised its MLS option to acquire Almada on Wednesday. (Antonio Lacerda/AP)

Ending a monthslong pursuit that included separate, intense investigations, Atlanta United exercised its MLS option to acquire Thiago Almada on Wednesday.

Almada, a 20-year-old attacking midfielder, will join from Velez Sarsfield for a reported potential fee of $16 million. Almada, considered one of the young standouts in South America, made 100 appearances with 24 goals and 11 assists for Velez. He has played mostly as an attacking midfielder, but can play across the midfield.

“We feel he’s one of the top young talents in South America,” club Vice President Carlos Bocanegra said. “We feel his ability on the ball to create and get goals is something that’s really going to benefit the team.”

Almada will occupy an international slot and be a designated player for Atlanta United. The transfer fee is among the most expensive in MLS history. The team is training in Guadalajara, Mexico. Almada arrived there Tuesday night. He is expected to be introduced to media Thursday. The team has two friendlies scheduled Sunday in Guadalajara. The team will open its MLS season at home Feb. 27 against Sporting KC. Manager Gonzalo Pineda said he’s not yet sure when Almada will be available. Once the club returns from Mexico Almada will begin working on securing his visa.

The signing was one of the more complicated in Atlanta United’s history.

Atlanta United first became interested in signing Almada last summer, according to President Darren Eales.

But Almada was considered a “person of interest” by authorities in Argentina after an alleged incident in December 2020 at a party, which led to a yearlong investigation by prosecutors in Buenos Aires.

Because of the investigation, Atlanta United elected to purchase an exclusive option on the player. The club wanted to sign him but would do so only when the investigation was completed with a satisfactory result.

As Argentinian officials were conducting their investigation, Atlanta United and MLS were using several different resources to conduct their own investigations into Almada and the incident. Those started in July.

The investigation by Argentinian prosecutors was archived, or put aside, Feb. 1. Almada was neither arrested, interrogated nor charged. Because of the satisfactory conclusion of the investigation, Atlanta United exercised the option to purchase the player, completing the process Wednesday.

“We devoted all resources into ensuring that this was the right move for the club and were allowing the legal process to play out,” Bocanegra said.

In addition to its own investigation, Bocanegra said several members of the front office flew to Argentina during the past six months to meet Almada face to face. Bocanegra said he was in contact with him weekly to answer questions about the league, the club, the team and to set expectations. Bocanegra said the club has ways to help Almada adjust to life in a new country. He said there will be classes on money management and lifestyle, and the club is hoping to work with the Argentina consulate on ways to make the players feel more at home.

The signing wasn’t embraced by all of the club’s supporters. In addition to the investigation for the alleged incident, Almada was photographed making a culturally insensitive gesture with his eyes after scoring a goal. Eales said the club has spoken to Almada about the gesture. Eales said Almada recognizes that gesture was wrong and has apologized.

“The expectation that Atlanta United has with our fan base, is a higher expectation, so he’s fully aware of that and we feel that he’s a young player, who both on and on the pitch is going to develop and become a better player and a better person,” Eales said.

The acquisition comes on the heels of the Five Stripes recently closing a chapter on another young Argentinian, Ezequiel Barco. He was purchased as an 18-year-old from Independiente for a reported fee of $13.7 million. He was just loaned to River Plate with a reported option to buy for between $7 million to $8 million. Eales said the plan was always to move Barco during the January transfer window and that the exclusive option the team had on Almada didn’t affect the team’s decision to move Barco.

The transfer of Almada is one of the more expensive in MLS history. It eclipses the reported $14 million that Atlanta United reportedly paid for Barco.

“We feel that he’s someone that is going to earn the trust of our fans and is going to be considered one of the top players that we’ve had in the future,” Eales said.

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Atlanta United’s 2022 MLS schedule

Feb. 27 vs. Sporting KC, 3 p.m., FS1

March 5 at Colorado, 6 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

March 13 vs. Charlotte, 4:30 p.m., FS1

March 19 vs. Montreal, 4 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

April 2 at D.C. United, 7:30 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

April 9 at Charlotte, 3 p.m., ESPN

April 16 vs. Cincinnati, 6 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

April 24 at Miami, 1 p.m., ESPN

April 30 at Montreal, 4 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

May 7 vs. Chicago, 6 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

May 15 vs. New England, 2 p.m., ESPN

May 21 at Nashville, 7:30 p.m. FOX

May 28 vs. Columbus Crew, 7 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

June 19 vs Miami, 4 p.m., ESPN2

June 25 at Toronto, 7:30 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

June 30 at New York Red Bulls, 8 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

July 3 at NYCFC, 5 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

July 9 vs. Austin, 7 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

July 13 vs. Real Salt Lake, 7:30 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

July 17 vs. Orlando, 3 p.m., ABC

July 24 at L.A. Galaxy, 9:30 p.m., FS1

July 30 at Chicago, 5 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

Aug. 6 vs. Seattle, 3 p.m., ABC

Aug. 13 at Cincinnati, 7:30 p.m. BSSO/BSSE

Aug. 17 vs. New York Red Bulls, 7:30 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

Aug. 21 at Columbus, 6 p.m., FS1

Aug. 28 vs. D.C. United, 4 p.m., UNIV

Aug. 31 at Philadelphia, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 4 at Portland, 5:30 p.m., FOX

Sept. 10 vs. Toronto, 7:30 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

Sept. 14 at Orlando, 6 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

Sept. 17 vs. Philadelphia, 3:30 p.m., UniMas

Oct. 1 at New England, 1 p.m., UniMas