After months of speculation, rumors and reports, Atlanta United today announced the signing of Thiago Almada on a permanent transfer from Velez Sarsfield. The 20-year old Argentine attacking midfielder becomes Atlanta United’s third Designated Player after the departure of Ezequiel Barco to River Plate late last month.
Almada, 20, recorded 24 goals and 11 assists in 100 matches for Vélez Sarsfield across all competitions. After passing through the club’s youth ranks, the Ciudadela, Argentina native made his professional debut at the age of 17 in a league match against Newell’s Old Boys on Aug. 11, 2018. He made 21 appearances in all competitions during the 2018-2019 season, including 16 in league play, scoring four goals and adding two assists. Almada then made 41 appearances in 2019-2020 and recorded 11 goals and three assists, including four goals and an assist in 22 Liga Profesional matches and four goals and an assist in eight appearances in the Copa Sudamericana.
Last season, Almada made 38 total appearances and tallied nine goals and six assists. He made 32 combined appearances in the Liga Profesional and the Copa de la Liga and scored seven goals with six assists. He also scored two goals in six Copa Libertadores matches as Vélez Sarsfield advanced to the Round of 16 of the competition.
“Thiago is a talented player who will add quality to our attack in the final third,” Atlanta United head coach Gonzalo Pineda said in the team’s press release. “He’s very good at taking on defenders and creating chances for himself and his teammates. We’re very happy to welcome him to the club and look forward to integrating him into the team as quickly as possible.”
Arriving to Atlanta at such a young age, Almada will be assigned as a Young Designated Player in the youngest category possible, meaning his salary budget charge will be $150,000.
Almada’s signing has been nothing short of a true transfer saga in every respect. It started last summer when initial reports surfaced that Atlanta held talks with Almada but did not finalize a deal.
Se acordó la venta de Thiago Almada al Atlanta United pero se irá en enero.— César Luis Merlo (@CLMerlo) August 6, 2021
*️⃣Vélez transfiere la totalidad del pase y los abogados de los clubes ya trabajan en los contratos.
*️⃣El jugador firmará hasta diciembre de 2025 con chances de extender por un año más. #TratoHecho pic.twitter.com/Oc0G1ZXTBb
Reports continued to trickle as the months progressed, inching toward a deal being struck before Velez erroneously announced the finalization of the deal in December.
Se arribó a un entendimiento con la Mayor League Soccer (MLS) por la cesión definitiva de los derechos federativos de Thiago Almada a favor del Atlanta United FC. El monto de la operación es de U$S16.000.000. El convenio entraría en vigencia a principios de febrero de 2022 pic.twitter.com/dLi6U1wR3Y— Vélez Sarsfield (@Velez) December 3, 2021
It’s unclear as to whether the $16 million figure stated includes incentives or if it’s a full sum. If so, it’d stand to be an MLS-record incoming transfer. But there was only one problem. Atlanta United denied the deal was done. The team responded hours later with a statement:
We have seen reports about Thiago Almada. We have not committed to acquiring the player at this time; we can confirm that we retain an exclusive option to permanently transfer the player. The option extends into 2022. We will have no further comment on the player at this time.— Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) December 4, 2021
The reason Atlanta United was not willing to commit to the deal at that time was due to Almada being named as a person of interest in a sexual assault case that occurred a year to the date prior on December 3, 2020. In the end, a former Defensa y Justicia assistant coach, Juan Jose Acuna, stands as the only individual who was charged, arrested and prosecuted for the alleged crime. Acuna fled from police immediately and was a fugitive for eight months before his arrest on July 30, 2021. He could face up to 15 years imprisonment depending on how that case proceeds.
But on December 3, 2021, the day Velez announced Almada’s transfer, Atlanta United and MLS were unwilling to commit to the player until the case had been completely resolved.
Atlanta United President Darren Eales and Vice President of Soccer Operations and Strategy Dimitrios Efstathiou spoke to Dirty South Soccer about what transpired during this time and why the club waited as it did before executing the option to transfer the player this week.
“Early summer, last year, we’d identified Thiago as a player that we liked from a playing perspective, but obviously there were allegations around then that were in the media in terms of an incident that happened earlier that year. We talked with the league and we were in lockstep with the league the whole way through this process.
“We set up a circumstance where we had an exclusive option, which meant we had the ability to sign the player, but only if certain conditions were met. That was really important, because the way that we had set it up is we wanted the legal process to have run its course to a certain outcome to have been realized. If that [outcome] was met, we would be prepared to exercise the option. If that [outcome] didn’t happen, we wouldn’t.
“In this case, when Velez said we’d signed him, we wouldn’t normally do what we did, but we were very clear to say, ‘No, no, we haven’t signed him. We’d signed an option,’ because everything had to meet the criteria before that transfer was going to take place. What was paramount for us was that the legal process could run its course. And that [course] needed to culminate in what’s happened, which is no charges brought against the player, not even brought in for interrogation at any stage, and a prosecutor’s order.
To dig further into Atlanta United’s due diligence process, Eales handed off in the conversation to Efstathiou. As background, Efstathiou has worked in MLS since 2011 when he joined as Senior Counsel. He spent the previous decade working in law, including serving as the Head of Legal for EFG Bank in London. And in his role as Senior Vice President of Player Relations & Competition at Major League Soccer, Efstathiou led the department that managed the player acquisition process for each of the league’s 27 clubs. Efstathiou was announced as a new member of Atlanta United’s front office on July 7 and began in his role officially on August 6.
Eales quipped he was now an expert in Argentine law due to his role in interpreting Almada’s status as a person of interest in the case.
“This process started in basically early July of 2021 when I was still at the league office. That was when a very extensive and in-depth due diligence process commenced, as Darren said, in lockstep with the league. Contrary to what Darren said, as much as I’d like to think I know about Argentinian criminal law, I don’t. We were very quick to recognize that we didn’t. We at the club and at the league office had no expertise on that. So in this due diligence process, it was not just at Atlanta United and the MLS league office. We went out and found reputable, high profile, third parties that could help us carry out an in-depth due diligence process that included investigative firms and law firms that knew about Argentinian criminal law so we could really grasp what was happening.
“Now, keep in mind when we started this, the investigation of the incident [by Argentine authorities] was already more than five months in. What we found quickly in the investigation in our due diligence was that the player was never arrested, never charged with anything ever. He wasn’t even brought in for interrogation and questioning. But he was listed as a person of interest within the investigation. And because of that and an abundance of caution, the club along with the league decided that we need to let this process play out. We need to let the investigation play out and see what comes of the prosecutor’s work. And if the investigation closes, then maybe we could do something depending on what comes out of that.
“So, as Darren said to that end, we entered into an option agreement with Velez. That exclusive option agreement was done with the specific purpose of saying, ‘We like the player, but only if certain things occur would we actually consider to exercise that option.’ Specifically, that this investigation by the prosecutor’s office wouldn’t yield any new evidence that would result in a charge or any further potential [questioning] of the player.”
Efstathiou explained that the term “archived” is how Almada’s involvement in the investigation is described in Argentine law, which Efstathiou defined as “a culmination and end to an investigation.”
Efstathiou emphasized that various reports, both those sourced locally in Buenos Aires and others published around the world reported Almada’s involvement in the case erroneously. When asked if words like “charged” were misused by international press, Efstathiou responded emphatically:
“Complete, complete misuse. Some [in the media] have said [charges] ‘are dropped’ or ‘they’ve been dismissed.’ No, there’s no dismissal. There’s no dropping of anything. There were never any charges.”
Efstathiou added that in when investigations such as these are archived, victims have an opportunity to appeal that decision. In this case, Efstathiou said, “that appeal period went through and there was no appeal by the victim. There was not even an appeal submitted and then overruled. There was no appeal.”
“A year-long investigation culminated with no arrest of the player, no charge of the player, and ended with a formal archiving of the investigation,” said Efstathiou. “That happened right at the beginning of February this year, February 1. So with that, we decided — again, in lockstep with the league — to exercise the option for the player.”
And Eales was clear upon speaking that Almada’s arrival in Atlanta was completely contingent on him clearing the legal process without incident or discovery by investigators.
“Obviously we couldn’t talk about what we’re talking about now until we got to this circumstance,” said Eales. “The legal process had to play out. There had to be no charges, no interrogation. And it be archived in the Argentinian due process. That had to happen. Anything else, and the transfer doesn’t happen.”
But, it did happen. Thiago Almada is the newest member of Atlanta United, and if the team is to have success in their goals of winning trophies this season, the young talent will undoubtedly be an important reason why.