Thiago Almada’s transfer to Atlanta United is record-breaking for Major League Soccer, but its complications ran far deeper than mere finances.
The $16m the Five Stripes paid to Velez puts Almada above the likes of Pity Martinez and Ezequiel Barco – also signed by Atlanta United – as the most expensive incoming player of all time in MLS.
“We feel he’s one of the top young talents in South America. His ability on the ball to create and score goals will really benefit the team,” vice president and technical director Carlos Bocanegra said at a press conference on Wednesday, shortly after Almada’s transfer was confirmed.
But the 2018 MLS Cup champions first began negotiating with Velez last summer. It’s taken a long time to get to the stage where he was wearing his new club’s colors.
Off the field, Almada was implicated in a sexual assault allegation in his native Argentina. Rather than pull out of the deal, Atlanta United negotiated an exclusive purchase option with Velez, allowed the legal process to play out, and performed their own extensive background checks.
“The exclusive option was to let the legal process take its due course, that was a reason why we did it this way,” club president Darren Eales said.
“There were a lot of teams that were interested in him around the world, so the exclusive option allowed us to wait for the legal process to run its course. It ended up with no charges or interrogation.”
In the end, as Eales mentioned, Almada was cleared without arrest or charge. And Atlanta United’s own vetting process was such that they were happy to proceed with a transfer that has caused a level of debate and division among supporters.
“We’ve done the due diligence over a number of months off the pitch,” Eales said. “We worked with MLS the whole way through this and we took the step we did. We accept there is a swirl of discussion going around, there will always be different views. We recognize that and accept that. Thiago recognizes there’s a higher standard here. We believe he’s going to develop, learn and be educated.”
It’s not just Almada’s legal case that has left some fans hesitant to embrace him as an Atlanta United player just yet. There is also the matter of a gesture he made while celebrating a goal for Velez in September 2021, posted to the club’s official Instagram page.
For context, this gesture is common among Velez fans, made in reference to the team’s 1994 Intercontinental Cup final win over AC Milan in Tokyo, and is not perceived in Almada’s culture in the same way it would be elsewhere.
But it’s also easy to see why the gesture would be deemed as racially insensitive. It has certainly been a painful subject matter for a number of Atlanta United supporters – one Eales stated Almada accepts responsibility for and will address in front of the media personally.
“In terms of the goal celebration, Thiago accepts that was racially insensitive,” Eales said, adding: “He knows that’s not behavior expected at our club, he knows that it’s wrong. He’s contrite about that and will be able to talk about that tomorrow (Thursday) when he’s with the media.
“He’s a young player. He has to develop on the pitch but he’s also got to understand and be fully committed to developing off the pitch in terms of understanding that the United States is different to Argentina. The expectation at Atlanta United with our fanbase is a higher one.
“He’s fully aware of that and we feel he’s a young player that, both on and off the pitch, is going to develop and become a better player and a better person.”