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.