In an offseason that promises a bevy of major moves -- in case you forgot, all 23 teams have an extra $2.8 million in Targeted Allocation Money to play with -- Atlanta United just put the rest of Major League Soccer on notice.
On Wednesday, the club announced they had traded for US national team midfielder Darlington Nagbe, sending potentially $1,650,000 in total allocation money to the Portland Timbers in a record-breaking MLS deal. The Five Stripes get a supremely talented, international-caliber midfielder in the prime of his career, making an already excellent team even better. Nagbe gets a much-needed change of scenery, bringing his sometimes spectacular, other times frustrating career with the Timbers to an end.
The 27-year-old will play centrally in a box-to-box, No. 8 role for head coach Tata Martino, a position he excelled at during the Timbers' run to MLS Cup in 2015, with Atlanta's attacking foursome all but spoken for (more on that later). What's this mean for Portland? Charlie Boehm has you covered. What's it mean for ATLUTD? Let's dig in.
How does Nagbe make Atlanta better?
Atlanta's expansion season, on and off the field, generated plenty of headlines in 2017, but anytime you don't win MLS Cup, there remains room for improvement. The potency of the attack is not in question (and could be reinforced further), the defense has already been reinforced this offseason and Nagbe should provide some younger legs in a midfield.
Last season, Tata Martino mostly relied on 30-year-old Carlos Carmona, 34-year-old Jeff Larentowicz and AT&T Rookie of the Year Julian Gressel in the middle of the park. While Larentowicz re-signed with the club on Tuesday, you could see Carmona slide into a defensive midfield spot, assuming those rumors out of Chile are just rumors, and Larentowicz and Gressel relegated to spot starter roles in 2018.
With the speedy Nagbe in the midfield linking defense and attack, Atlanta's attacking players can conserve energy for what they do best. No more need for Miguel Almiron to drop and pick up the ball deep in midfield to drive at the defense. He can rely his new teammate to do just that, allowing the Paraguayan international to choose his starting position and focus on unlocking the backline in the final third, or join Nagbe running downhill to give opposing midfielders and defenders nightmares.
Martino's team was most dangerous in 2017 when they were able to get out on the break and score goals in transition against a backpedaling defense, but they often struggled in possession. Nagbe's ability to keep and circulate the ball should alleviate some of those issues, allowing the attack to set up in dangerous positions and the defense to better anticipate danger.
What does the trade mean for Nagbe?
Critics of Nagbe often cite passiveness and indecision in the final third, resulting in a lack of tangible production. Four goals and 10 assists over the last two seasons for Portland simply isn't enough for a TAM-level attacker in today's MLS. This infamous heat map highlights those issues.
It's time to accept that Nagbe's never going to be a player that puts up big goal and assist numbers. There's value in far more to winning soccer games than box-score production. Atlanta know this, and it seems Nagbe may have finally found his "fit" after seven years as a professional.
We always talk about how important (and often rare) it is for players to find the right club, coach and team to be the best versions of themselves. @darlingtonnagbe is a wonderful fit for @ATLUTD. Skeptics of this deal beware.— Andrew Wiebe (@andrew_wiebe) December 13, 2017
Atlanta already have players who bang in goals and dish out assists in bulk. They don't need Nagbe to be that player, and there will be almost no pressure on him to put up numbers in order for the team succeed. Atlanta just need him to be himself.
Nagbe has an elite-level skillsets -- passing, dribbling and turning opposing players -- and those are the areas Martino will ask him to focus on week to week. He won't have to be a vocal leader in the locker room. He won't have anyone asking him why he isn't scoring more. For the first time time in a long time, maybe ever in MLS, Nagbe can just be himself.
And in being himself, he may just turn ATL into both a dominant possession and counterattacking team. That's a scary thought.
This always makes me laugh when people talk about Darlington.. what exactly does he need to do for people to say he is finally showing his “potential”. 10g 10a? He has NEVER been that player. He’s fulfilled his talent despite everyone wanting him to be MLS Messi https://t.co/g1xHU4LL6g— Steve Zakuani (@Zakuani11) December 13, 2017
How does it affect the rest of MLS?
Arthur Blank, Darren Eales and Co. have made it clear that they will use whatever mechanism available to make their team the best in MLS.
They are not afraid to pay massive transfer fees for special talent in the international market. They almost certainly use all of the Targeted Allocation Money in their coffers. And they've shown with this trade that they have no qualms about using some of that TAM to land top domestic talent.
Few teams have shown the ability or willingness to spend at these levels, and the ATLUTD brass will look to continue to set the standard in terms of player acquisition as they mature as a club.
Atlanta's roster is still in a state of flux. Asad's loan from Velez Sarsfield expired at the end of the season and his status still remains in question. The fact that the front office left him unprotected for the Expansion Draft could be a hint as to what they are thinking regarding the Argentine's future.
No worries, Atlanta are chasing 18-year-old attacker Ezequiel Barco from Independiente in what could be one of the biggest transfer fees ever paid in MLS history. Barco figures to be another exciting attacking piece, and one that would ensure that Nagbe will not be relied on to play on the wing.
All of this seems pretty fluid, especially with the transfer rumors that inevitably swirl around Almiron and Martinez, but it's clear Nagbe will have the talent around him to do what he does best.
What's ATLUTD's potential? Portland must be pretty high on the Five Stripes given the performance triggers included in the trade.
Wondering what will trigger that $600k in future TAM? Per sources I trust...— Andrew Wiebe (@andrew_wiebe) December 13, 2017
💰 $150k - League MVP
💰 $100k - 12 goals or more
💰 $100k - 15 or more assists
💰 $250k - Top 3 in MLS points + ATL win MLS Cup
Nagbe would have to hit the goals and assists figures in a single season, not over multiple seasons, in order for Portland to collect. That seems unlikely, but the biggest return is the one that involves the team's accomplishments. Will the Timbers be hoping to collect that $250,000 in TAM? You bet.
There's no question that Toronto FC should still be considered the favorites heading into 2018, as they are unlikely to lose any of their key pieces, but the No. 2 spot? That looks like Atlanta's at the moment.