Atlanta United's Thiago Almada broke ground for MLS with Argentina's World Cup title

AP photo by Jeff Chiu / Atlanta United FC midfielder Thiago Almada speaks during Major League Soccer's media day on Jan. 10 in San Jose, Calif. Almada gave MLS a historic first when he became the first active MLS player on a World Cup championship team last month as Argentina won the title in Qatar.

First, he cried with joy and shared the news with his family.

And then Thiago Almada needed to catch a plane. Quickly.

The 21-year-old midfielder for Major League Soccer's Atlanta United FC was called up to Argentina's World Cup squad as an injury replacement mere days before the team's opening game in Qatar this past November.

"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 sport's most prestigious trophy, Almada has returned for his second season with Atlanta United.

Almada is the first active MLS player to win a World Cup. Twelve others who have played in MLS (which began in 1996) — including Thierry Henry, Andrea Pirlo, Bastian Schweinsteiger and David Villa — also won international soccer's biggest team trophy, but none of them were in the league when they did it.

Argentina's successful run in the World Cup was challenging at the start, with a surprising loss to Saudi Arabia in its group opener. Some have called it one of the greatest upsets ever in the quadrennial tournament. To Almada, that loss made winning the title in the end all the sweeter.

"It was a shock for us to lose that game in which we were in control so much of the game, and then they scored two goals in five minutes. But I think it served us well," Almada said through an interpreter. "We were able to lift our heads and stay on the path that we wanted. And yeah, it just allowed us to be united."

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

"Very mischievous," Messi, considered one of soccer's best ever, told reporters. "He is not afraid of anything."

In Qatar, Almada made an appearance late in Argentina's 2-0 victory over Poland in the group stage, saying afterward: "I'm the luckiest kid in the world."

Now he's back in the United States, training with Atlanta in preparation for the MLS season, which begins Feb. 25. Almada did not play in Saturday's preseason match against the Chattanooga Football Club at Finley Stadium, where Atlanta's exhibition with the National Independent Soccer Association team finished in a 3-all draw.

Atlanta coach Gonzalo Pineda said that for Almada, "the best thing he can do is to keep his feet grounded, and that's exactly what he has shown since the very first day he's been here in 2023 with us. He's been on time in every meal, in every training session. He's been doing everything that's normal.

"He's very humble, and I like that. So I would like to keep him with that little hunger."

Almada, who spent three-plus seasons with Vélez Sarsfield in the Argentine Primera Division, signed with Atlanta as a designated player in February 2022 for a reported transfer fee of $16 million, an MLS record.

In his first season, he had six goals and 12 assists, earning him the league's award for top newcomer. But while Almada performed well individually, Atlanta went 10-14-10, finished 11th in the Eastern Conference standings and missed the playoffs for the second time in three years.

Atlanta, which enjoyed fast success by winning the 2018 MLS title in its second season, has taken steps to improve with the hiring of Garth Lagerwey from the Seattle Sounders as team president, but there was dismay among fans with the recent buyout of beloved veteran Josef Martinez, who subsequently signed with Inter Miami CF.

Almada remains a key piece as an attacking midfielder for Atlanta, along with goalkeeper Brad Guzan and defensive midfielder Ozzie Alonso. Carlos Bocanegra, the club's technical director, said this past week that the team is actively looking for a striker.

"My goal is to have a great season as a group," Almada said. "So we want to have a great preseason, then take it game by game, try to make the playoffs and hopefully be able to end it with a title at the end of the season."

He said he believes it won't be long before there are more World Cup winners playing in MLS. And certainly the league as a whole will be lifted by the next World Cup in 2026, which the United States will host along with Canada and Mexico.

Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where Atlanta plays its home games, will be one of the host venues.

"A lot of MLS players were at the World Cup. You have more and more young, talented players are coming here," Almada said. "So I think the gap between MLS and those big European leagues is getting smaller."