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A look at how Darlington Nagbe fits with Atlanta United

Atlanta United’s attack set the league alight in their expansion season. Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino’s squad fired a whopping 70 goals, good for second in the league behind only eventual MLS Cup champions Toronto FC. On paper, Atlanta had an attack that paired remarkable talent with unlimited potential. Both shined through, and plenty of goals were scored because of it.

It was a team loaded with options, a group that can attack from a variety of angles with speed and power. With this week’s move for Darlington Nagbe, though, Atlanta United adds a whole new weapon to an arsenal that is looking like it could be one of the most technical, creative and, most importantly, lethal attacks the league has ever seen.

Atlanta sent a record-breaking haul to the Portland Timbers to acquire Nagbe’s services this week, adding a versatile, experienced and talented player to a team that reached the playoffs in its first ever season. It was a hefty payment, for sure, but a player of Nagbe’s quality could be the key to fully unlocking everything Atlanta has to offer.

Given the pieces currently on the club’s roster, the most logical spot for Nagbe is in the central midfield. Josef Martinez is penciled in at forward after being all but dominant whenever he was healthy enough to play last season. Miguel Almiron drifts in from just behind him, attacking from a variety of angles. Hector Villalba locks down the right wing while, if reports are to be believed, Argentinian star Ezequiel Barco is being brought in to add an even more ridiculous option on the left. Barco’s addition is likely the end of Yamil Asad’s time in Atlanta, even if it was pretty productive. Now, things can always change with Atlanta given the massive transfer fees that are always looming but, for now, this attacking unit seems pretty set.

Last season, Atlanta’s central unit was comprised of Carlos Carmona, Jeff Larentowicz and Julian Gressel. Carmona is likely to stay in the midfield as the pure defensive option, the No. 6 that allows Nagbe to roam. Larentowicz provides veteran depth at both centerback and in the midfield throughout the grind of an MLS season, while Gressel, fresh off a Rookie of the Year campaign, can provide valuable minutes everywhere from central midfield to out wide. He may not be a permanent starter, but he’ll have a big part to play.

With Carmona sitting behind him, Nagbe is the connector. He can link Carmona and the defense with Almiron and the attack. It’s a job he did quite often with the U.S. Men’s National Team when paired with Michael Bradley. Nagbe is one of the best in the league when it comes to handling tight situations and shuffling the ball correctly. Then, once that’s done, he can jolt forward, join the attack, and add another playmaker to the mix. Nagbe’s role is one that will alleviate pressure on the defense while also boosting the attack in a big way.

“I think he gives us options,” said Atlanta Technical Director Carlos Bocanegra. “Guys like Julian Gressel or Almirón, they can play inside or outside. Darlington can also play inside or outside. So it gives Tata flexibility on the field with how he wants to line them up. With Darlington, we don’t expect him to be a #10 so to speak, because that would push Miguel deeper or out wide.

“He has a good engine, he’s calm and smooth on the ball. You can fire him the ball while he’s in trouble and he’ll get out of it with possession and keep the flow of the game going. We see Darlington as someone who is going to bring other people into the game and make all the players around him that much better.”

Still, Nagbe may not necessarily be shoehorned into a central midfield spot. With the Timbers, he was often played on the wing. In some ways, it was out of necessity because of the team’s options in central midfield. His former coach, Caleb Porter, however, believes Nagbe is best deployed in the left.

“You can play him right, you can play him in the center, you can play him in a six,” Porter told SBI before the start of the 2017 season. “There’s this argument about where he’s best. Well, it depends. It depends how you shape his role.

“Where he will produce the most is pretty clear when you look at the analytics. When he plays center mid, yes, he’ll be good. When he plays right wing, yes, he’ll be good.  But he produces the most goals on the left wing.”

The potential acquisition of Barco complicates that, but one would expect Nagbe to get some sort of minutes at that position throughout the season. The season is long and, after seeing his side wear down a bit towards the end due to a grueling schedule, Martino will certainly shuffle things up.

For Nagbe, Atlanta seems an ideal fit. For years, he was relied upon to provide big numbers for the Timbers. With Atlanta, he won’t have to. The Atlanta United attack is already as talented as any in the league, leaving Nagbe to simply play his game, fulfill his role and use his skillset to make those around him better. Nagbe is an elite dribbler and is one of the league’s best at navigating tight spaces. With Atlanta, those will be his primary jobs.

In his new home, Nagbe won’t be asked to be the guy. Rather, he’ll be asked to be the guy that puts the players next to him in positions to succeed. It’s a role that suits him and a team that fits for a player that could just vault Atlanta United closer to an MLS Cup push.


  1. As a USMNT fan, I am, sadly, a former Nagbe fan. I cannot get out of my head the image of him trotting along nonchalantly twenty yards away from his mark as Alvin Jones buried the game winner that ended our World Cup Qualifying campaign. So painful. Now all we remember are his great runs for the Timbers? I wish I could be that forgiving.

  2. The one thing I see is Carelton even further away from the field that he so much needs to be on. If they’re not going to play him then they should send him somewhere he can play. He needs minutes. Nagbe is 27 now and most likely is at his peak right now.

    • If Carleton is not option number one off the bench this year for wide midfield and Miggy then he will be with our USL Reserve team starting. He will be get plenty of mins this season.

    • Just look at Sargent’s comments about why he’s going to Germany. More teenagers are getting minutes in Germany then they are in MLS and the players know it. Carleton and Goslin were clearly 2 of the best players at the U17s and should be getting real minutes in MLS not USL.

      • I agree THAT right there is a massive problem that MLS needs to address, and soonest.

        There needs to be some sort of mechanism in place to entice MLS teams to play – not merely sign – young players. Personally I think there needs to be a minutes-played threshold – maybe 450 or so, the equivalent of five games – where if you play a young guy MLS allows you to deduct his salary from the cap, or some such. Or maybe EVERY team in MLS has to start at least one guy who is U21 or U22 so it’s a level playing field…I dunno. But the USSL and MLS need to put their heads together and figure out how to get young players a ton more opportunities and minutes.

        Absolutely ridiculous that in a league as paper-thin (and cap-restricted!) as MLS that the young guys aren’t getting more minutes.

  3. I haven’t written anything on this yet. I’m definitely in the minority, but I think Atlanta paid too much for Nagbe and I don’t think he’s worth as much as they paid. I think they could have gone outside the league and probably found someone better for approximately the same money. The article said the Timbers relied on Nagbe to provide big numbers, but the only big numbers he provided were in minutes played. For all his talent, he really didn’t produce much, just as with the national team.

    • Would they have anymore international roster spots seems like 2/3 of their team are non Americans. Admittedly I have no idea how many internationals you can have. I agree that is too much for a guy who typically gets 2 or 3 goals a season.

    • Good point Gary because the Timbers relied on Nagbe to be a shuttler supreme. He was the king of the hockey assist transitioning the ball into the offensive third. One aspect of his game that has been tempered is the late run into space. After Porters 2013 initial Porterball impact of possession and technical attacking. Porter had to institute more midfield defensive responsibility of balancing the field. Nagbe was very astute at balancing the field and helping slow down counters.
      I have seen every professional game Nagbe has played. Right from the get go he was a marked man. Often leading the league in most fouled player, considering he would often be fouled three times in one possession before getting a call.
      Is he worth it? Absolutely from a fans aspect with his Barry Sanders type of attacking runs. At 27 I’m not sure he is worth it? Considering his game is developed and skill set even though exceptional has topped out. Timbers got a lot of financial and roster dexterity out of this deal.
      I know Atlanta fan base has the South fired up and that is great for MLS. A little caution to the wind and remember this is a salary capped league. That limits your roster. A few key injuries especially to your back line or center midfield and there goes your season. Going into 2014 the Timbers were expecting to score 70 plus goals after taking the league by storm with Porterball. The league adjusted and officiating did not protect players on the ball. So beware of the parity and the sometimes unbalanced field of officiating with a technical possession attack

  4. The Atlanta brain trust of Martino, Eales, and Bocanegra along with their entire FO and scout network continues to amaze me as a fan. Soon we’ll be announcing Barco’s signing. They’ve already paid a 1.8MM option on Lucas Rodriguez to have the right to match any other offer his club in Argentina receives, this will be Alimiron’s replacement when he’s sold at double what we’ve paid for him. Then we’ll be looking to buy another DP after that with that cash too.

    We’ve got Carelton and Goselin waiting in the wings too. Its an embarrassment of riches so far and just a matter of time before league domination sets in. Add in depth so we don’t break down running into the end of season and playoffs and we’re set. Maybe a young striker prospect in case Martinez gets injured is all that’s left. Toronto, Seattle, Atlanta are MLS’s big 3.


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