In the midst of Atlanta United’s wild 2-1 victory over the San Jose Earthquakes, Thiago Almada twice lifted up his jersey on Saturday — first, after a stunning match-leveling goal for Atlanta United in stoppage time and again after an even more jaw-dropping last-gasp free kick goal — to show a T-shirt with the words “Fuerte Apache”.
Fuerte Apache, or Barrio Ejército de los Andes, to put it mildly, isn’t exactly a sun-bathed, family-friendly suburb of Buenos Aires. Rather, “dangerous” and “crime-riddled” seem to be its primary descriptors when conducting a quick Google search on the part of town Almada calls home. Thousands of miles away from Fuerte Apache on Saturday night, though, just over 2 months after lifting Argentina’s first World Cup since 1986, Almada delivered his most memorable performance in his brief Major League Soccer career.
It’s been a whirlwind past few months for Almada, starting with learning on November 17 that he’d be a late injury replacement on Lionel Scaloni’s Qatar-bound roster 5 days before the tournament began. La Albiceleste ultimately advanced to a legendary final on Dec. 18 where they topped defending champion France in penalties.
So you could probably excuse Almada for being unusually low-key about Saturday’s events while meeting with reporters, considering the biggest footballing memory he’s ever had happened almost 10 weeks ago.
“He’s a fantastic kid with a great mentality, and what I love is his humility,” Atlanta head coach Gonzalo Pineda. “He’s an unselfish player that yes, today, he was a hero, but he’s willing now to be the hero as long as we win, and that’s pretty nice for a 21-year-old.”
It also doesn’t hurt that Almada’s heroics happened on the 1st day of Apple’s 10-year deal with MLS, ensuring that the league will be shown on its MLS Season Pass in over 100 countries and exposing it to a wider global audience than it has in the past. The headlining match was set to be an El Trafico showdown between the LA Galaxy and LAFC at the Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena, Calif. But a storm system that dumped rain over Southern California forced its postponement until July 4.
Instead, fans inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium — and watching elsewhere — were treated to late-February fireworks.
“I kind of blacked out, to be honest with you,” Andrew Gutman said. “I didn’t believe it went in and then I kind of just ran around and I looked behind me and Thiago has his shirt off and everyone’s going crazy. With 70,000 people screaming like that, it’s a cool feeling so it was a great win for us.”
Atlanta understood that it wasn’t at its best on Saturday night: it would rue a defensive miscue that allowed Jeremy Ebobisse to head home a Cristian Espinoza cross in the 12th minute and were probably fortunate to later not go 2-0 down. But the Five Stripes ultimately secured all three points, needing every second of 7 stoppage-time minutes, and a bit more, to see Almada work his magic. Next up: Toronto FC next Saturday, who saw its own lead away to D.C. United disappear on the back of a pair of late goals.
“It was important to win at home, the first game of the season so we’re very happy for the victory and it was due to everyone on the squad,” Almada said through an interpreter. “Surely we’ll have things to improve, like every team. It’s the first week, we have to learn and correct the mistakes so that they don’t keep happening.”
As for his shirt?
“It was for the people in my neighborhood who always support me,” he said. “There’s a restaurant there, helping people who don’t have food to eat. I dedicate today to them, my family, my mom, and little sister who are there.”
Needless to say, Thiago Almada made Fuerte Apache even more proud on Saturday.