It’s pretty obvious what Atlanta United means to the city of Atlanta. Between the yard flags, tens of thousands of people packing Mercedes Benz Stadium, day long tailgates before games, and the team winning every single online vote imaginable, the city is clearly obsessed with the Five Stripes.
But what about the players? What about the manager? Modern soccer is changing from a game where loyalty and players staying with teams for their entire career is shifting to teams featuring hired guns chasing glory or the next big payday. Players talk about the support being great or the fans being amazing, but what does that mean really?
Miguel Almiron is one of the more unknown players on the team. He doesn’t do much press and there have been rumors about him leaving the club. Almiron has said that he wants to play in Europe, but it would be a mistake to think that he has not developed a deep connection with the city and is somehow not committed to playing for Atlanta United. Anyone who saw his devastated reaction after he injured his hamstring late this year should know that.
To illustrate this point, he has an amazing and heartfelt piece in the Players Tribune talking about what it meant to play for Tata Martino and the fans in Atlanta. The entire piece, of course, is worth reading, but there were some highlights that stuck out. For example, he talks about losing in the playoffs to Columbus, saying:
I didn’t think losing would hurt as much as it did. Everything was new this year for me — the country, the city of Atlanta, the club. Even though I’d been here 10 months, I felt like I was still settling in by the time the playoffs came around. But I didn’t know how connected to Atlanta I had become.
And by losing that match, I felt like we let the city down. I’m sorry for that.
That night, lying in my bed, I kept thinking about what our coach, Tata Martino, had said to us before the match:
“Be calm, tonight. But don’t be afraid. Know what you’re playing for and know who you’re playing for. Be aware of the chance we have and the expectation that comes with it. Play for Atlanta.”
He goes on to talk about what playing for Tata Martino, a legend in Paraguay who led the national team there to the quarterfinals and managed a local team in Almiron’s hometown, means to him. Almiron tells the story of their first phone conversation, detailing his nervousness and what he felt when Tata said he wanted Miguel to play for the new team:
He told me he had an offer on the table for this new project in the United States, and that if he was going to go, he wanted me to go with him.
“Quiero contar contigo, Miguel.”
I could barely believe what I was hearing.
“Coach,” I said, “it is such an honor that you’re even calling me. Of course I want to go to Atlanta with you.”
I didn’t know much about MLS. I didn’t know where Atlanta was. I didn’t know anything. But Tata was manager, and that was all I needed to know.
Quiero contar contigo is one of those amazing Spanish phrases that goes beyond the literal translation and requires a description of it beyond the mere words.
Quiero contar contigo.
“I want to count with you,” is basically it. But what it means is: I want to rely on you, and I want to do this together.
Miggy also talks about his career and how he didn’t make the first team he tried out for at age 14 because they said he was too small. Eventually he made his way to Cerro Porteño, the club he supported as a child, and had to prove himself there at the youth level again because of his size. His play there attracted the attention of Lanús in Argentina and signing a contract with them allowed him to buy a home so that his family of seven, who had been sharing a three bedroom apartment, could live more comfortably.
When the opportunity to play for Tata Martino came up, Almiron was more interested in playing for him than anything else, describing what it means to play for the coach and what it means to play soccer in general:
They showed us the new stadium, facilities, etc. It was nice. But to be honest, that’s not what football is really about to me. It’s about the sport, the people, the feeling.
For me, this opportunity was about Tata.
He is Atlanta to me.
It might seem silly. (I have grown to love Atlanta for different reasons, too.) But it’s hard to describe the connection Tata has with the people of South America, and how many of us would do anything to play under him.
Almiron also talks about a kind of culture shock coming to play in the U.S. Several of the players and Tata have talked about how they enjoy soccer in MLS because the fans aren’t as... let’s say excessively passionate as in Argentina and South America. It’s something that Miguel noticed too, saying:
I learned quickly that the atmosphere in MLS matches is different than those in South America. Our first game I didn’t play well. I missed a good scoring opportunity and was upset at myself because we lost 2–1 to the Red Bulls. But still, after the match, people were clapping and chanting our names. I was amazed by that, but I didn’t really understand it to be honest. Why are you happy? In Argentina people would be cussing and whistling at the team.
It took time to understand that the culture is different here. MLS is a really beautiful league, with great teams and facilities and supporters. It’s just different, is all. And that is good.
MLS fans sometimes have insecurities about the league and seem to be overly concerned with authenticity as the banter about being a “real fan” pops up on social media constantly, but the difference that Almiron mentions is what makes MLS authentic. The Atlanta United talisman addresses one source of the insecurity, that MLS is a retirement league, talking about how meaningful it is for players like David Villa and Giovinco to be here as well.
In the end he talks about what it’s like to play for Tata Martino and to play in Atlanta, saying:
It’s still surreal to me, you know? This man was my idol, and now here we are in Atlanta, Georgia — together.
My first season in MLS was beautiful — I think that’s the best way I can describe it. I learned so much about myself, the United States and this city, specifically. I feel very lucky to be a part of this club.
Thank you, Atlanta.
Miguel Almiron might not play for Atlanta United for his entire career, indeed he is destined for bigger things. But it’s clear that his coach, the team, the city, and the fans have been a big part of what makes soccer special for him: the people.