Stejskal: The real Darlington Nagbe rises in Atlanta

Darlington Nagbe - Atlanta United - smiling

MARIETTA, Ga. – This is a story less about reality than perception; about how our hopes for what someone can be can blind us to the actuality of what they are; about how expectations, regardless of their validity, shape how we think and talk about everything around us.

This is a story about Darlington Nagbe.

As an American soccer public, we’ve always wanted the Atlanta United midfielder to be more. From the moment he scored his first professional goal with the Portland Timbers in 2011 – taking a headed clearance out of the air on the edge of the box, juggling once, juggling twice, then sweetly striking the purest of volleys into the top corner – we’ve dreamed of what he might be.

He doesn’t just run past defenders, he glides around them; he doesn’t just have an excellent touch, he has gravitational pull; he doesn’t just score goals, he finishes with uncommon beauty. He’s one of the most graceful players in all of MLS, effortless with his movement, elegant with the ball, prodigiously skilled, a poet on the pitch.

Early in his career, we took his talents and projected our desires for MLS and the US national team onto them. Conversations about him were rarely rooted in the present. Everything became a question of what he might turn into. Would he be one of the first Americans – or, more accurately, Americans-to-be – to leave the league and become a star in Europe? Would he grow into a legit No. 10 for the USMNT? Would he use his athleticism to become a terrifying, goal-dangerous winger?

We built him up. Then, when he didn’t become the player we wanted him to be, we tore him down.

Despite playing the bulk of his seven years in Portland as a winger, Nagbe only averaged 3.86 goals and 4.29 assists per season for the Timbers. No one doubted his talent, but his numbers underwhelmed. In time, those stats changed the tenor of the conversation about him. By the end of the 2017 season, after the No. 1-seeded Timbers were bounced in the Western Conference Semifinals and head coach Caleb Porter exited, the hype and hope around Nagbe had mostly dissipated. The good vibes were replaced by a general sense of frustration that, despite all his talent, he would probably never be the attacking star so many thought he’d turn into.

As he’s shown during his first few months with Atlanta, that frustration was our problem, not his. Nagbe was traded from Portland to the Five Stripes in a blockbuster deal in December, taking him from the place where he’d spent his whole career and nearly his entire adult life and bringing him to a club that had a different idea of how to line him up: As a full-time box-to-box central midfielder.

Atlanta always intended to use Nagbe as a No. 8, a role that he’d only played briefly – if successfully – in Portland. With Miguel Almiron, Josef Martinez and Tito Villalba on board and Ezequiel Barco in the pipeline, Atlanta didn’t need Nagbe to carry their offense. Manager Tata Martino just needed him to do what he does best: Keep the ball, set the tempo, connect the back four to the attack and occasionally break the lines with a well-placed through ball or dangerous forward run.

A little over a third of the way through the season, and it’s clear that the move has more than paid off. Nagbe is at home in the middle of the field and is playing some of the best soccer of his career with Atlanta, who lead the Supporters’ Shield standings and are averaging the most points per game in MLS heading into Sunday’s marquee match against the New York Red Bulls (7 pm ET | FS1 in the US, MLS LIVE on DAZN in Canada).

“That’s where we wanted to deploy him with our team, and as you’ve seen after the first few games, he’s starting to get into a rhythm where he gets on the ball and he’s really that connector, an [Andres] Iniesta type, a [Sergio] Busquets type,” Atlanta technical director Carlos Bocanegra told last week.

“I think that one thing that drew me to Atlanta was that this a team that loves to be on the ball, has guys that want to be on the ball and love to have possession. That’s what I love doing, as well,” added Nagbe. “So, my role is to just get on the ball, try to be the link between the defense and the attack, and I feel like I’m comfortable with that.”

As was the case during his time in Portland, Nagbe isn’t putting up gaudy numbers this year. The 28-year-old has zero goals and only two assists in his 11 appearances in 2018, though he has been involved in the buildup on a high percentage of Atlanta’s MLS-leading 25 tallies and is the league’s most accurate passer in the opposition’s half.  

What’s changed is where he lines up and what we expect from him. Now, instead of being viewed as a talented winger who couldn’t produce in front of goal, we can think of Nagbe as what he really is: An incredibly skilled, hyper-athletic, deeper-lying central midfielder who’s more comfortable setting up his teammates than pulling the strings for an entire attack.

“I felt [the weight of expectations] a little bit in Portland,” Nagbe said. “I don’t score too often, but whenever I score, for some reason, they’re always nice goals. I feel like everyone sees that and then they just expect it out of me. Everyone wants to see the highlights, and they liked the highlights that I had in Portland.

“I mean, I was under Caleb for a long time. He knew my game, so he didn’t really push me to score goals or be too attacking. He knew that I wanted to touch the ball, that I wanted to keep the ball and bring guys into the game. I would say that’s been a good part of being here, too: Being a little bit deeper, being able to do that a lot more and Tata really emphasizing keeping possession and working both sides of the ball.”

In Atlanta, Almiron, Martinez, Barco and Villalba provide the highlights. Nagbe can sit deeper, acting as an outlet when the attackers get bogged down and need to recycle the ball and serving as a conduit between the back line and the forwards.

He showed what he’s capable of in the new role on Atlanta’s first goal of the season in their 3-1 win against D.C. United on March 11. After Atlanta intercepted the ball deep in their own half, Nagbe deflected a bulleted clearance over the head of a defender and to the feet of Villalba on the right wing. Villalba quickly returned the ball to Nagbe, who dribbled into space and threaded a perfect through ball back to the Argentine attacker. Villalba took off down the flank, eventually crossing to Martinez for a tap-in finish.

“Not only is he excellent in possession and can wiggle out of trouble, but he can get past people on the dribble and can carry the ball forward,” said Bocanegra. “And then once he beats you, he really can make a pass that really takes people out of the game. We thought he would be a nice complementary piece to what we had already, and obviously with Barco in the pipeline, we thought that all these guys would really complement each other nicely in the style we wanted to play.”

The play was a good window into how Nagbe’s athleticism, touch, vision and passing can help Atlanta dangerously transition from back to front. It’s in those moments, more than in a one-on-one situation on the wing or when he’s on the ball in the box, where we see the true Nagbe.

But those moments leave some frustrated. At any given time, Nagbe is capable of being the best player on the field. But you can't really build an attack around him. He’s excellent, but he’s most valuable when surrounded by other elite talent. He’s so smooth, it sometimes looks like he’s not trying. He makes things look so easy that we almost always want more.

In Portland, as a winger, Nagbe probably did need to produce a little more. In Atlanta, as a central midfielder, he doesn’t need to. He can operate how he wants to operate, play his role, play it well and not be relied upon to go win a game in the final third. He can be a uniquely incredible complementary player instead of a leading light.

He can feel a little more at home. He can be the real Darlington Nagbe, and we can start appreciating him for what he is, not what we think he should be.