First, he cried with joy and shared the news with his family. Then, Thiago Almada needed to catch a plane. Quickly.
The Atlanta United midfielder was called up to Argentina's World Cup squad as an injury replacement mere days before the team's opening game.
"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 has returned for his second season with Atlanta United in Major League Soccer.
Almada is the first active MLS player to win a World Cup. Twelve others who have played in MLS, including David Villa, Thierry Henry, Andrea Pirlo and Bastian Schweinsteiger, also won international soccer's biggest 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 the opening game. Some have called it one of the greatest upsets ever in the 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, 21, had only earned his first call-up to the national team in September, but he caught the eye of Lionel Messi, who praised him as both fresh and fast.
"Very mischievous,” Messi 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. Afterward he said: “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.
"I think 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," coach Gonzalo Pineda said. “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 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 with United he had six goals and 12 assists, earning him the league's Newcomer of the Year award.
While Almada performed well individually, Atlanta finished 10-14-10, ranked 11th in the Eastern Conference standings and out of 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 there was dismay among fans with the recent buyout of Josef Martinez, who subsequently signed with Inter Miami.
Almada remains a key piece as an attacking midfielder for United, along with goalkeeper Brad Guzan and defensive midfielder Ozzie Alonso. Vice President Carlos Bocanegra said this week 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 the league. And certainly, MLS as a whole will be lifted by the next World Cup, which the United States will host along with Canada and Mexico.
“A lot of MLS players were at the World Cup. You have more and more young, talented players are coming here,” he said. “So I think the gap between MLS and those big European leagues is getting smaller.”
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