ATLANTA — What a difference a week — and a timely tactical shift — made for Darlington Nagbe.
In the opening weekend of the MLS season, Nagbe wasn’t his usual confident self throughout Atlanta United's 4-0 loss to the Houston Dynamo. Paired with Chris McCann in the central midfield, Nagbe wasn’t sharp in his distribution, and manager Gerardo "Tata" Martino eventually subbed him out of the game in the 61st minute.
But on Sunday, the US international midfielder showed why the Five Stripes acquired him from the Portland Timbers for over $1 million in allocation money in the offseason. In a dominant 3-1 win over D.C. United in front of a record crowd at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Nagbe did what he does best, maintaining possession and circulating the ball for his team. He finished the night with 54 touches, 38 completed passes, and a 92.1 percent pass completion rate.
Nagbe was upbeat when asked to assess how he’s adjusted so far to his new teammates.
“It’s been going well,” Nagbe told MLSsoccer.com following the Houston match. “The first game, it didn’t go the way we wanted it to go. But today we came out strong and executed the game plan well. I think we got what we deserved today.”
Asked how his second match differed from the first, Nagbe said he was “rotating the ball more, being sharper.”
“I think that’s our biggest thing we didn’t have last game,” he said. “Our individual mistakes, we eliminated those and then we were sharper on the ball and rotated the ball a lot better.”
Nagbe added: “We all just picked up our game from last week and everyone was willing to get on the ball. Everyone worked hard defensively and had a lot of energy.”
Martino, who after last week’s loss said Nagbe was “not as precise as he usually is,” agreed with Nagbe’s positive self-assessment about this week’s performance.
“The game last week against Houston I thought he was a little uncomfortable, but today I thought he played very well," the Atlanta coach said. "We’re trying to get him and Franco [Escobar] and the new pieces involved, but today I think he showed that last week the level from the team was low, but tonight we played well.”
Nagbe credited Martino with making the right tactical decision to switch to a 3-5-2 formation against D.C. United.
“I think he put everyone in position to do well and win the game," he said. "That’s all you can ask with him. He put the trust in us to execute."
In particular, Nagbe said a key difference was having Jeff Larentowicz in his customary defensive midfield role as a shield and distributor in front of the Atlanta backline after starting as a center back against Houston.
“Jeff did a great job in there communicating, organizing, making sure that once the ball turned over that we were in position to defend and press," Nagbe said. [He also did a] good job of switching the point of attack for us."