Throughout his seven years in Portland, Darlington Nagbe was many things. He was a superstar and an enigma, all at the same time. He was a central midfielder at some points and a winger in others, a player sometimes cursed by his rare ability to be good at a variety of things.
Nagbe’s time in Portland is over and his time in Atlanta is set to begin. In that time, Nagbe won’t be asked to be a savior or be tasked with unlocking some mystical sort of potential. Rather, he’ll be asked to be a piece, a cog in the machine that lifts Atlanta one step closer to an MLS Cup.
The U.S. Men’s National Team midfielder officially joined Atlanta United this week as he departed Portland after a seven-year stay that began with his selection in the 2011 MLS SuperDraft. It was a record-breaking move for Atlanta, who ponied up a potential total of $1,650,000 in allocation money to bring in the midfield star.
For Nagbe, the move was a natural progression. Following the departure of longtime Timbers head coach Caleb Porter, Nagbe was determined for a new challenge and, in more ways than one, a move to Atlanta fit the bill. He didn’t need a magic sales pitch or anything like that. He saw the sales pitch with his own eyes as he saw Atlanta this season and, having seen that, it felt like a place where he could flourish.
“I was in Portland seven years. I had a good time and did some good things there,” Nagbe said Friday on a conference call. “I was just looking for a change, and obviously Atlanta is a great organization with a great team and they’re moving in the right direction. My family and I thought it was the best decision, not just for off the field, but on the field as well.”
According to Atlanta United Sporting Director Carlos Bocanegra, the move for Nagbe came on “pretty quickly”. When the club found out that there was a chance Nagbe could be available for a blockbuster trade, Bocanegra said he instantly became the club’s No. 1 offseason target. A player like Nagbe wasn’t one Bocanegra saw as obtainable and, once he was, Atlanta had to have him.
Many players pass the eye test and many players pass the statistics test, but Nagbe is a player that Atlanta saw as passing both. With the eye test, Bocanegra saw plenty of data as Nagbe featured for both the Timbers and the USMNT. Then, with statistics, there were plenty of heat maps and metrics that showed Nagbe had the ability to fill a major gap in the Atlanta midfield.
Throughout their expansion season, the Atlanta United attack exceeded all expectations by firing a whopping 70 goals. The missing piece, though, was a link between the defense and the attack that can free star playmaker Miguel Almiron to stay a bit higher up the field.
Bocanegra says Nagbe gives the team “flexibility”. He can play down the middle and be that connecting piece. He can also play on the wing. The goal was to keep Almiron close to goal, and bringing in Nagbe can do that in several ways. He can break lines with his passing and dribbling, and Bocanegra says he also expects Nagbe to provide a few goals and assists as well.
“We see him coming in as a big connector, someone that is dynamic and can also skip out of trouble,” Bocanegra said. “He can dribble his way out of trouble and skip past a defender. He pulls opposition out of their position and he creates space for other players. A guy like that, that’s where we see he benefits our club and his ability on the ball and to run with the ball and retain possession and bring other people into the game is why he became our number one target.”
“As a player, you want to be on the ball,” Nagbe added. “You want to be able to attack, have possession of the ball and control the game. Atlanta did a great job of that last year. As a player, you want to be a part of something like that, and hopefully I can add to that.”
For Nagbe, the move takes in a little bit of added meaning. While fitting in with Atlanta will be vital, he also has one eye on his USMNT future.
At age 27, Nagbe still has an eye fixed on World Cup 2022 after missing out on the upcoming 2018 trip to Russia. The midfielder could certainly be a part of the upcoming cycle, and moving to Atlanta is something he believes could help his case.
Until then, though, his task is helping Atlanta mold itself into a winner. He won’t be alone, though. Bocanegra says the club is keeping options open when it comes to further additions. He expects the club to be active right until the transfer window closes and the new season begins.
Even if the club stands relatively pat and completes the long-rumored addition of Ezequiel Barco, Atlanta should be even better than the 2017 expansion side, especially if Nagbe can assert himself as the missing link in the midfield.
“That’s the question everybody has: can you get this kid’s potential and has he unlocked his potential? For me, he’s living his potential right now,” Bocanegra said. “He’s never the guy we expect to score 15 goals. I don’t know if Portland expected him to do that or not.
“For me, I don’t want him to change. I want him to do exactly what he has been doing for the last seven years in the league and now with the national team and that’s why he’s our No.1 target in the league. Everything he has done in his career domestically here and with the national team, that was the player we were looking to get here at this club. “