Update: On Jan. 31, 2019, Almirón signed with the English Premier League’s Newcastle United for a $26 million transfer fee — the highest ever for a Major League Soccer club.
In the 66th minute of the March friendly between the United States and Paraguay, there is one soccer player whose talent stands out despite his rail-thin, 5-foot-9 frame. Miguel Almirón streaks down the field in his bright-orange cleats and red-and-white striped jersey. The midfielder chases a clearance, forcing the goalie to kick the ball away under pressure. A defender corrals it, turns around — and is immediately met by Almirón again, who steals the ball, jukes and launches a screamer into the right corner.
The shot is blocked, barely, but that’s beside the point. Even without scoring, Almirón’s potential as a one-man wrecking crew is clear, so much so that interim coach Dave Sarachan explicitly credited stopping Almirón as the reason the U.S. kept its 1-0 clean sheet. Since then, Almirón hasn’t been so kind to opponents. He led Atlanta United to seven straight wins to end April, scoring a league-leading six goals and fourth-best four assists to earn MLS Player of the Week honors. His success has spurred “MVP” chants, and he has drawn transfer interest from European giants such as Inter Milan, Arsenal and Manchester United. “He is one of the best I’ve ever played with. With the quality of his transition play, if he can move forward with the ball he is dangerous,” says MLS All-Star Darlington Nagbe, who plays with the midfielder at Atlanta United. The club, and player, know that it’s only a matter of time before this show goes global. “My goal is playing in Europe someday, and I’m just working hard every day to get to that goal,” says Almirón, through a translator.
The morning of the friendly, Almirón is in the lobby of a Marriott in Raleigh, North Carolina. His hair is a slicked-back fade; his only jewelry is a sparkling silver watch. On his left arm is a tattoo reading El tiempo de Dios es perfecto — “the timing of God is perfect” — a reminder to have patience in the divine plan. The 24-year-old talks about visiting the Georgia Aquarium and Coca-Cola factory with his wife. The wealth surrounding him in this ritzy hotel is strange considering where he came from. “My first motivation is to my family,” he says of his siblings, parents and grandparents. “I just wanted a way to feed them,” he admits.
Almirón is shy, loath to talk much about himself to the point of tropes. “A tough nut to crack,” says Haris Kruskic, of the blog Dirty South Soccer, who covers Atlanta United regularly. It’s easier to understand Almirón’s reticence after visiting San Pablo, his home and the largest neighborhood in Paraguay’s capital of Asunción. When he was young, Almirón would ruin his shoes from kicking … something, to approximate the leather fútbols he couldn’t afford. “The sense is that you play with a bottle, a rock, anything,” confirms Fidel Troche, a director for formative players at Olimpia, the country’s most storied club. At Parque NuGuasa, which locals call “the lung” of Asunción because it is one of the city’s few green spaces, Olimpia coaches put 50 young kids through drills on a recent afternoon.
Yet the goal posts have no nets, and the fields are more sand than grass. Those are the type of conditions that Almirón played in while trying out at age 14 for the junior team of the top-division Club Nacional. The coaches barely took a look before deciding he was too skinny, he says — and it wouldn’t be the first time his build was questioned. Still, he started taking a 40-minute bus ride to another club, Cerro Porteño, where he became “a legend,” says Andrés Riquelme, who played in the Nacional system. “He would always beat us.” At 18 years old, Almirón bought his family a house, fulfilling a dream while leaving behind the bedroom he still shared with his mother. His search for financial security led him to play for Club Atlético Lanús in Argentina, where he won two championships. He has become a source of pride for a country that fancies itself as the heart of South America, even as its neighbors see it as the boonies.
With every step on American turf this summer, Almirón moves his cleats, and compatriots, closer to global glory.
Almirón faces new challenges as his star brightens, such as living up to the hype and staying upright despite his slightness. “He makes his teammates better,” Troche says, but at times he thinks too far ahead for his teammates to follow, leading to missed passes. His success has also exposed rifts locally. “The press people want the local titles. They don’t want the good players to go overseas,” gripes Troche, who believes that view holds the nation back. For the players who brave international play, cultural and language barriers can be daunting. Almirón misses his friends, whom he visits in the off-season in December. “The hardest thing is the language right now,” he admits.
Still, Almirón has chartered a pipeline for other Paraguayans to follow. The small, landlocked country recently sent budding stars Jesús Medina, a forward, to NYCFC and Josué Colmán, a midfielder, to Orlando City. His coach at Atlanta United, legendary Argentine Gerardo “Tata” Martino, became a cult hero in Paraguay after leading the national team to the World Cup quarterfinals in 2010, prompting a friend of the then teenage Almirón to say: “Man, imagine if Tata was coaching us some day? How cool would that be?”
That dream came true last year, after “El Tata” called Almirón up personally. “Quiero contar contigo,” Martino told him, a saying that essentially means “I want to rely on you.” And as much as Atlanta has relied on him, so too will Paraguay. Sure, the nation of nearly 7 million didn’t qualify for this year’s World Cup, as a still-developing Almirón did not score a goal in eight appearances during qualifying. But with every step on American turf this summer, he moves his cleats, and compatriots, closer to global glory. “He might become both,” Riquelme says, “one of the best players on the team, and in the history of Paraguay.”
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