Atlanta United’s long search for a deep-lying midfielder finally came to an end as the club announced the signing of Santiago Sosa from River Plate on Friday.
While the absence of Josef Martinez grabbed the headlines, the Five Stripes suffered just as much in 2020 from the loss of Darlington Nagbe, who returned to Columbus Crew to be closer to his family in Ohio following the 2019 season.
Without Nagbe, Atlanta were often slow and predictable in possession, with nobody willing or able to take the ball from the center backs and progress it forward, while it was often all too easy for teams to play through the middle of midfield, exposing the Five Stripes’ brittle backline.
The reported $6 million capture of Sosa — a 12-time international at U-20 level with Argentina — should go a long way toward shoring that area of the pitch up ahead of Gabriel Heinze’s maiden campaign in charge.
So, what can fans expect from their new midfielder? Let’s take a look:
What role will Sosa play for Atlanta United?
Given that he was reportedly denied a move to Everton in the Premier League due to work permit issues not too long ago, Atlanta’s signing of Sosa is quite rightly being met with a good level of excitement. That said, the fact remains that at 21 years old and with only 21 senior appearances under his belt, he is still very much wet behind the ears.
Despite his relative lack of experience (though he did play six Copa Libertadores matches for River in 2020), Sosa is seen as an intelligent player, able to pick up the best spots in front of his defense in order to offer center backs protection, as alluded to by Carlos Bocanegra upon his signing announcement.
“Santiago is a holding midfielder who understands and reads the game exceptionally well for someone his age,” the Atlanta United Vice President and Technical Director said.
Dirty South Soccer spoke to Argentine football expert Tom Robinson (Golazo, World Football Index) to get the inside scoop on Sosa’s time with River. He believes the youngster is a great fit for Heinze’s deep-lying midfield role, though he’s looking forward to seeing him get regular minutes having been unable to nail down a consistent starting spot under Marcelo Gallardo.
“Sosa definitely fits that deep-lying conductor that Heinze puts great emphasis on,” Robinson told DSS. “I think he’s got all the attributes to fulfill that role, having been brought up through the famed River academy and impressed for them and the Argentina U20s.
“What I’m most intrigued to see is if he can step up to be that key midfielder who is central to the side’s success, and how he handles the responsibility that comes along with that. Up until now, he has been more of a squad member than guaranteed starter under Gallardo.”
Another string to Sosa’s bow is his versatility — a highly valued trait for any player on an MLS roster, given the various financial restrictions at play in the league. The La Plata native operated as both a deep-lying midfielder and a box-to-box No. 8 throughout his time with River, with Robinson said his ability to “get stuck in and dictate play” allowed him to transition seamlessly between the two roles. Even more interesting is the fact he also played almost 250 minutes as a centre-back for the Argentine giants last season, with his defending quality and defending quantity rating at 89 and 84 (max. 99) , respectively, while playing in that position according to Smarterscout’s style ratings system.
As shown above, Sosa is also proficient in the air and this ability to play at center back might well come in handy for Heinze following the loan departure of Franco Escobar to Newell’s Old Boys and Fernando Meza’s uncertain future.
“On top of how well he uses the ball and retains possession, what I think fans should be very encouraged by is the versatility he has also shown in the last 12 months,” said Robinson.
“We’ve always known he’s a good defensive midfielder who can get stuck in as well as dictate the play but he’s shown his ability to be more of a box-to-box player who can contribute further forward, and he’s also dropped into the defense and performed admirably.
“Given that Heinze requires his deep-lying midfielder to fulfill various roles, you can see why Sosa ticks all the boxes.”
Most importantly for Atlanta United, Sosa’s ball retention rating rises to 96/99 when moved into a midfield role. For context, Nagbe has consistently rated between 91 and 98 for this metric across the last five seasons, so Sosa’s ability to keep the ball, and initiate possession sequences from deep positions will be vital to Heinze.
Will Sosa require a transition period?
As is the case for any young player moving to a new country — especially one that is relatively inexperienced and joining a team with a new manager — fans should be patient as Sosa gets comfortable with his new teammates and surroundings.
However, the Argentine connection in Atlanta will undoubtedly help Sosa bed in a little quicker, while Robinson’s description of the player as ‘studious and hard-working’ suggests he’ll be doing everything possible to hit the ground running.
Robinson said: “He’s a smart kid, got his head screwed on right. [He is] studious, hard-working, always looking to improve and hone his game.”
He added: “Clearly he’s a player who has been brought in to come straight into the side and play a key role, so you would hope his technical ability and physical traits would be well suited to adapting quickly.”
What are Sosa’s ambitions for the future?
As mentioned, Sosa was reportedly near a deal with Everton in the recent past, so you can assume the Argentine is already appearing on the radar of some big European clubs.
Miguel Almiron serves as a prime example of how players can move from South America and use MLS as a platform to draw interest across the Atlantic.
Sosa still has a lot to prove having never been a regular during his time with River, but as is the case with most South American players moving to MLS, this transfer will likely serve as his opportunity to put himself in the European shop window.
“Realistically we’ve not seen enough of him playing on a regular basis to know for sure just yet, so I think this move will tell us if he is a player with a future in Europe, which I think most people expect, or whether he will be someone who remains a top player in the Americas,” said Robinson.
Should Sosa find himself attracting interest from Europe in 18 months, that would mean Atlanta will have benefitted from a player who has plugged a serious gap in their midfield, while the Five Stripes would stand to make a handsome profit on the sum they’ve paid for his services. That can only be a good thing for player and club.