Mar 5, 2017 14:15:21
The Paraguayan is one of six arrivals from the football-mad continent who are looking to take MLS by storm for the franchise led by Gerardo Martino.
It is the most audacious of plans. In the club's first MLS season the newly born Atlanta United franchise is aiming as high as possible, hiring a coach with experience in two of the most prestigious posts in the world and giving him a squad capable of fighting at the very top.
Gerardo Martino, then, has a great responsibility on his hands going into his first game of the campaign on Sunday, and he has placed his trust in players from his own backyard in order to bring success to the Georgia club.
Atlanta's South American legion are an unknown quantity stateside, but each of Martino's signings comes with a fine reputation in their home nations to justify the gamble on the franchise's part.
The brightest star in the club's firmament might just be young Paraguayan star Miguel Almiron. At 23 Almiron comes to MLS with a burgeoning reputation both in his home nation and in Argentina, where he spent the last two years after bursting onto the scene at hometown club Cerro Porteno in Asuncion.
In truth, the playmaker was one of two Cerro alumni identified by Martino, a former Paraguay coach himself, as potential cornerstones of his Atlanta revolution. The ex-Barcelona and Argentina coach wanted to supplement Almiron's explosive talents with those of Oscar Romero, the left-sided No. 10 who also made a massive impact in Argentina's Primera Division with Racing Club. The U.S. side, however, was eventually beaten to the punch by Shanghai Shenhua, who came in at the last minute with a bigger offer and subsequently sent Romero on loan to La Liga with Alaves.
The combination of Almiron and Romero alongside the latter's twin brother, Angel, has proved a brilliant one in Paraguay's creative engine room at a time where the Guarani are rebuilding an aging squad. But the ex-Lanus man will not be fazed by the responsibility of spearheading Atlanta's attack without his compatriot.
In two years at Lanus he proved himself one of the most potent offensive forces in the entire Primera Division, teaming up with veteran Jose Sand to turn the club into a real force. His reward was glory in the 2016 Transitional Championship, crowned with a 4-0 victory over San Lorenzo in the final to mark Lanus' first league title since 2007 and only the second in the club's history. Almiron is quick, a mazy dribbler and equally adept at playing in the hole or just off a main striker. And he is raring to go with this new challenge in the northern hemisphere.
"My conversation with Tata was key in deciding to leave Lanus and try my luck in the MLS," he told MLS' official website. "Tata is a great coach, a winner, and I did not doubt for a second when he said he wanted me.
"I will try to give my best for the team and since the club is new we want to do big things. Personally I am going to try and enjoy this moment and also learn English."
Martino's influence there, as well as with the likes of Hector Villalba, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, Carlos Carmona, Yamil Asad and Josef Martinez, the five other members of Atlanta's South American contingent, will be key. The coach will act as an intermediary between his English and Spanish-speaking players, helping the latter group ease in to life thousands of miles from home. "Clearly," Atlanta's president Darren Eales said to Goal in a recent interview, "it's a lot easier when you have Tata Martino as your coach to speak to a player."
While Almiron will be the focus of most attentions, the rest of the Latin quartet also come with plenty of experience. Villalba grew up in Buenos Aires' notorious Villa 11-14 slum just yards from San Lorenzo's home ground in the Bajo Flores neighborhood, and joined the club at the age of 10.
A diminutive, direct winger in the mold of Atletico Madrid's Angel Correa, an ex-teammate at the Nuevo Gasometro, Villalba was a first-team regular for the giants while still a teenager and was a vital part of the team that lifted the Copa Libertadores in 2014. Martino sealed his signature back in the summer of 2016, and the 22-year-old spent the last six months of the year on loan at Tijuana before returning to Atlanta in time for the new season. Tito indeed had the honor of scoring Atlanta's first-ever goal, slotting home in a friendly against Chatanooga after a barnstorming run from Almiron.
Evidence from preseason suggests Martino will begin with the attacking trident he used in Barcelona and Argentina, with Almiron and Villalba lining up off stalwart ex-Sunderland center forward Kenwyne Jones. But just behind them is another South American youngster who promises a great deal.
— Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) 11 de febrero de 2017
After three years in Serie A and 35 Venezuela caps, it is hard to believe Josef Martinez is still just 23. The striker comes on loan from Torino after struggling to establish himself in the Italians' first team, but he has held his own in the fleeting glimpses afforded to him and now has a golden opportunity to star in Martino's team. With the likes of Almiron and Villalba working behind him, Martinez should not lack for ammunition in front of goal in his MLS bow.
Gonzalez Pirez is a graduate of the River Plate youth academy who came to prominence last season at Estudiantes under the tutelage of Nelson Vivas. A strong all-round defender, at 25 he still has a big future ahead of him if he can realize his potential in MLS. As can Asad, the son of Velez Sarsfield legend 'El Turco' Omar and who at 22 has everything to prove still after a decent, if inconsistent start to his career at his father's old stamping ground.
Carmona meanwhile, is the established name Martino is banking on to provide valuable experience to a young squad. At 30 and with almost a decade in Italy behind him the Chilean will act as the motor in the Atlanta midfield; not for nothing is he known as 'seven lungs', testament to his inexhaustible stamina on the pitch.
Atlanta's bold recruitment policy marks something of a departure in MLS. Other franchises have chosen to fill their DP posts with fading European stars; Martino has bet on hungry youngsters. With the exception of Carmona all of his South American arrivals are 25 or under, and eager for the chance to succeed in a team that will undoubtedly attract close attention over the coming season. What's more, the Argentine is planning for the future, establishing the core of a team for the next five years over the temptation to go all out for instant success.
Whether those dynasty plans pay off will become evident later down the line. The first challenge for the new franchise comes on Sunday, in the daunting shape of the New York Red Bulls. But with Almiron leading the way for Atlanta's far-flung arrivals the city is bound to have a memorable year as it enjoys this monumental opening tilt at MLS glory.