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Atlanta United signs Miguel Almirón, hopefully sparking a trend of ambitious MLS signings

Like Nicolás Lodeiro before him, Almirón is an impressive capture, and the type of signing that MLS should focus on.

Colombia v Paraguay: Group A - Copa America Centenario Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Atlanta United has made a huge splash ahead of their first season in MLS, announcing that they’ve signed Paraguayan international midfielder Miguel Almirón. According to reports out of Argentina, they’ll pay $13 million for his services. That will be the largest fee ever paid to bring a player to MLS, if that report is accurate. His salary has not been disclosed, but he will be a Designated Player. As Almirón is 22 years old, his salary cap charge will be $200,000, less than older DPs.

It’s a stunning and ambitious capture — one of the most surprising in MLS history. While the likes of David Beckham, Sebastian Giovinco, and Nicólas Lodeiro might have made bigger news, they were all considerably older than Almirón, cost smaller transfer fees, and had seen their careers stall before moving to MLS. Unlike them and all of MLS’ world famous DPs, Almirón is a player whose career is in the ascendancy.

Much is likely to be made of the fact that Almirón’s agent claimed Arsenal was interested in his client just this summer. That shouldn’t be taken as gospel — agents have incentive to exaggerate interest in their clients — but it’s still striking. This is a player who is young, improving, and was creating significant European interest in himself leading into next summer. He might not have had better short-term financial options than a move to Atlanta, but this was not a player who had reached a difficult crossroads. There were a lot of different ways he could have improved his salary while moving up to a higher level of the game — something that can’t be said for most MLS DPs, and especially the big-name ones.

But even if Almirón is a more ambitious capture than Lodeiro and Giovinco, he has much more in common with them than the likes of Steven Gerrard and Andrea Pirlo, or any of the United States men’s national team stars who have returned to the league recently. Almirón and the other players like him are not only technically and creatively superior to most of their MLS peers, but at the peak of their game physically. They are not novelties and they don’t need a team to be built around masking their deficiencies. They’re players who can be thrown into any team and improve it instantly. And they’re not names that will sell tickets, but they’ll create local interest by helping their teams play better soccer.

This is the best recent trend in MLS — the idea that soccer can be the draw. What a concept for a soccer league!

Atlanta United has made a business decision that the best marketing they can do is put an excellent product on the pitch. The people running the show in Atlanta are making a bet that, if their team wins and plays attacking soccer doing it, they will make money. They appear to think that versatile young players are a better investment than more limited, but more famous established players.

The big business success of the Pacific Northwest and Canadian teams — but also the recent smaller-scale success that teams like FC Dallas, Sporting Kansas City, and Real Salt Lake have enjoyed — suggests that focusing on winning soccer over marketing gimmicks is a good idea. Atlanta signing Almirón is the best iteration yet on that very good idea.

If Almirón’s name sounds familiar and you’re not sure why, you might have seen him playing in Copa America this summer. He started two of Paraguay’s games, against Colombia and the United States.

Almirón has played primarily as a left winger or a shuttling central midfielder with the freedom to drift left for Lanús and the Paraguayan national team. However, he’s also played as a central attacking midfielder, and Atlanta making a show about him being their No. 10 suggests that head coach Gerardo Martino might see him in that role as well.

Dribbling is Almirón’s primary strength. He’s a wizard with the ball at his feet, but he’s occasionally so confident in his own skills that he forgets to pass. He can hit a good through ball when he actually picks his head up, and Martino will want him to learn to do that a bit more often. Because Almirón is a left-footed left wing/central midfield ‘tweener with great dribbling skills and solid physical talent, he’s often compared favorably to Argentina star Angel Di Maria.

Almirón moved to Lanús from Paraguayan club Cerro Porteño in 2015. He was a bit-part player in his first campaign, but started to play a bit more during Lanús’ title-winning season in the spring of 2016. During the current season, he’s been a key player, starting in nine games and appearing in a substitute in Lanús’ other two matches. He’ll continue to play for Lanús through 2016, then join up with Atlanta United for their preseason.