After Atlanta hoisted the 2018 MLS Cup, rumors surrounding midfielder Miguel Almiron and forward Josef Martinez immediately surfaced. The two Designated Players (MLS teams can only have three) seemed to have outgrown the league, with an instinct for scoring that only certain elite players possess. Josef Martinez put the gossip to rest by signing a five-year contract extension with United on Jan. 16. Later that month, the team signed midfielder Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez as another Designated Player (having one more than the allotted three), and Almiron’s future was further put into question. Finally, on Jan. 31, Almiron signed with Premier League team Newcastle United for a record fee for an MLS player: around $26 million.
Almiron leaves Atlanta as a club hero after tallying 13 goals and playing a pivotal role in its MLS cup success. Since joining United from Lanus in 2017, Almiron registered 21 goals and 28 assists in 62 games with Atlanta. While Almiron’s replacement is well-equipped to take over the reins, Almiron had an indescribable connection with Josef Martinez and the duo’s ability to pass and score was invaluable to United.
Despite the bittersweet departure from Atlanta, Almiron is determined to prove his worth with Newcastle in a more competitive atmosphere.
“I’m very happy and eager to start and to meet my new teammates,” Almiron said. “I think it is a great responsibility, something beautiful for me, and I will try to offer the best I can to repay the trust the club put in me.”
While some fans will be proud to see Almiron’s development progress, United has sold arguably the best player in the MLS and an undoubtedly popular player on their roster. The fans and team alike must be patient and re-adjust to the major loss.
To soften the blow, Pity Martinez was signed to be Almiron’s replacement. Yet, the player nicknamed after an Argentinian bird is arguably more qualified than Almiron. Pity Martinez is the reigning South American Footballer of the Year, an honor previously awarded to legends like Brazilian forward Pele and Argentinian forward Diego Maradona. He also played a crucial role in River Plate’s 2018 Copa Libertadores triumph, helping them win the most prestigious club trophy in South American soccer.
Like Almiron, Pity Martinez is known for his dribbling skills and speed with the ball. Pity Martinez seems determined to make his mark on United and support Josef Martinez in continuing his impressive goal scoring. When asked about joining Atlanta over other teams, Pity Martinez had a simple answer: “I’m someone who likes a challenge … I know that Atlanta’s a club that’s winning titles, and I’m someone who likes to compete for titles.”
His statement is indicative of Atlanta’s rapidly growing reputation as a premier soccer team in the MLS. Pity Martinez added that he aspires to play soccer in Europe, and he knows that Atlanta’s reputation will help attract the attention of top teams.
“Atlanta is a club that’s doing things well, so I know that if I perform well, there will be opportunities … to go to Europe,” he said.
While Atlanta is ready to succeed without Almiron, some argue that Newcastle gambled on Almiron, buying him before he fully developed. Almiron excelled in the MLS, but the physical rigors of the Premier League (widely regarded as the most competitive soccer league) are on a different level. Regardless, Newcastle manager Rafael Benitez has faith in Almiron’s talent.
“We know that MLS is a different challenge to the Premier League but he has the potential to do what we are expecting and what we need,” Benitez said.
Speaking on Almiron’s effect in the MLS, Benitez did not hold back on compliments.
“His impact in MLS had been really good, Benitez said. “He has been one of the best players this year … and hopefully he can give us more competition and more quality in the final third,” Benitez said.
Some view this as a positive sign for the reputation of the MLS. A Premier League team rarely signs MLS players for the amount of money splashed on Almiron. In fact, United only paid $8 million for Almiron and made a substantial profit from his sale.
Almiron follows a trend of young players developed by MLS teams and sold to European teams, like former New York Red Bulls midfielder Tyler Adams, who was sold to Red Bull Leipzig in the German Bundesliga.
Showing that there is life beyond Almiron, Atlanta United crushed the Seattle Sounders 7-1 in the first game of the pre-season on Feb. 2. Pity Martinez scored his first goal for United in a scrimmage match in California. If Atlanta can carry this momentum into the regular season, Almiron’s loss may soon be forgotten.