<
>

Atlanta United's Miguel Almiron ready to audition for European suitors in MLS All-Star Game

The arrival of Miguel Almiron to MLS made quite the splash 18 months ago. Viewed as one of the most promising players in the Argentine league after helping guide Lanus to a title in the fall of 2016, the Paraguayan playmaker was lured to Atlanta United by fellow Argentine Gerardo "Tata" Martino and has been a hit ever since -- 17 goals and 24 assists and about a gazillion chances (104!) created in 52 matches speaks for itself.

Arguably the most exciting player in the league to watch, Almiron will be in his element in Wednesday's All-Star Game versus Juventus, and it has all the makings of a special night. The 24-year-old will be playing in front of 72,000-plus adoring home fans in Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium, with the chance to strut his stuff against one of the top clubs in Europe.

"Of course I'm excited for it," said Almiron in a phone interview with ESPN FC. "All players want to play in this game. It's a wonderful experience, and I plan to enjoy it to the fullest."

In last season's All-Star Game in Chicago against Real Madrid, Almiron offered a glimpse of what could be in store Wednesday. Entering as a second-half substitute, Almiron injected some life into what was a rather listless 90 minutes of action between the two sides.

Moreover, it was a chance for Almiron to show his wares against the reigning European champions, further solidifying what was growingly apparent during the 2017 MLS season and still remains the case today: Almiron is the most highly coveted transfer target in the league among European clubs.

The suitors have been lining up for a while. Rumors of a move to Arsenal, Fiorentina, AC Milan, Inter Milan, Newcastle and others have been floating around for months, but this All-Star Game against an illustrious team like Juventus provides ample opportunity for Almiron to make a statement, even if it is "just a friendly."

Of course, it was "just a friendly" back in 2003 between Sporting Lisbon and Manchester United when Cristiano Ronaldo caught the eye of Sir Alex Ferguson. When opportunity knocks, you have to answer.

"It's a great chance to show myself, and yes, against such an important club like Juventus, there is an extra motivation to do well. There will be a lot of people watching. It's a match that I'm taking very seriously. It's a fun friendly for the fans, but I will be taking it seriously. I want to win," Almiron said.

This all comes at a very unique time in MLS. Much has been said about the infusion of South American youth, and nowhere is that more prevalent than at Atlanta United, where Almiron, along with Josef Martinez, Ezequiel Barco and the rest of the "Tata Attack" have already poured in 46 goals this season after tallying 70 in the club's inaugural campaign.

There is the sense that the All-Star Game for years to come can be the spectacle that the league's young South Americans use to accelerate their journey to Europe, starting with Almiron.

"It's not just me, there are many talented players from South America who are in MLS and will play in this game. As players, we see this as a growing league and we're choosing this league as a place to improve," the Paraguayan said.

While new Juve signing Ronaldo is not expected to take part in the festivities, Juventus will still be bringing a talent-rich squad to Atlanta, including a trio of players, who like Almiron, have strong roots in Argentine football: Gonzalo Higuain (River Plate), Paulo Dybala (Instituto) and Rodrigo Bentancur (Boca Juniors).

Higuain, in particular, is the one Almiron is keen to play against -- "he's a player I've always liked and admired" -- and the hope is that soon the two can face off again, but on the other side of the Atlantic.

"I have said it before, that my objective is to play in Europe. I work daily on that. I'm happy here in Atlanta. The club makes me feel comfortable, but yes, in 2019, hopefully I will be playing in Europe," Almiron said.

A scintillating performance on Wednesday night certainly wouldn't hurt.