He's the most expensive player in MLS history, and yet, Thiago Almada has been benched for each of Atlanta United's last two matches.
Such has been the Five Stripes' struggles that Almada has been introduced at half-time in both.
Against Orlando City, the Argentina youth international provided the assist for Juan Jose Purata's equalizer and created two chances as Atlanta came so close to a comeback win. But against the LA Galaxy on Sunday, despite clearly improving his team, Almada had no such luck, with the hosts killing the game 2-0 in second-half added time.
Watch the story of Charlotte FC's journey to MLS in 90min's The Making of Charlotte FC, presented by DoorDash, on 90min channels now. Subscribe to our new US YouTube channel.
In his last nine MLS appearances, Almada has seven direct goal contributions, scoring twice and assisting another five times. His three goals and five assists overall mean he's been directly involved in just over a quarter of Atlanta United's goals this season - with another pre-assist for good measure.
So, why has Gonzalo Pineda left his star player and one of the biggest names in Major League Soccer on the bench two games running, with Atlanta United struggling for form?
"Why no Thiago? I have to make choices. I have to make choices with the back five that we were playing, we were looking for solidifying the back five and that means I have three spots up front," Pineda explained after the match, adding: "I decided for Luiz [Araujo], Marcelino [Moreno] and Ronaldo [Cisneros] but we will try to check the film and try to see if we could have done better.
"I think yes, individually, that Thiago was very good tonight. I will check if tactically if that could have helped us also in that moment.”
While he moved to defend his head coach's decision, trying to pick between players like Almada, Luiz Araujo, and Josef Martinez for limited positions, midfielder Matheus Rossetto did hint that he'd like to see the former Velez man start soon.
"He’s a great player. He’s a very important player for us," Rossetto said of Almada. "When he came on in the second half, along with Josef (Martinez) and Marcelino (Moreno) and the guys in our attack, we had more power offensively.
"We have a lot of competition. Gonzalo can’t choose to play everyone from the start, so everyone is competing for places. Of course, Thiago is a great player and hopefully, we can all play on the field together in the next game.”
Gonzalo Pineda: "We're not clinical"
Atlanta United have allowed far too many easy goals this season, but for all their defensive flaws, they should have taken more than four points from their last four matches, with the Five Stripes generating enough chances to do damage to their opponents.
Atlanta United's xG vs goals from last four matches:
- vs Austin FC: 1.21 - 0
- vs Real Salt Lake: 1.32 - 2
- vs Orlando City: 2.19 - 1
- vs LA Galaxy: 1.31 - 0
But Atlanta have passed up on far too many chances, scoring three in their last four despite a combined xG total of 6.03.
That has heaped even more pressure on a defense that is low on confidence and disrupted by injuries to key players like Brad Guzan, Miles Robinson, Brooks Lennon, and Andrew Gutman.
"I feel like the whole game, or most of the games, we’ve been in control of the game and trying to attack," said Pineda. "That attacking-minded football, you can see it in how many chances we create in every game, home or away. We’re creating a lot of chances, it’s just we’re not as clinical as we should have [been]. But we will continue in trying to create more chances than the opponent.”
Something must change soon, with Atlanta United now 12th in the Eastern Conference, four points adrift of the Playoff spots with 13 regular-season games to go.