Darlington Nagbe - Atlanta United - dribbling vs. Portland's Diego Chara
John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Atlanta United wait on Nagbe injury news, ponder how to address "big loss"

ATLANTA – Atlanta United may be without Darlington Nagbe in the lineup for the first time all season after the midfielder went down with what appears to be a muscle injury on Sunday.

Nagbe hit the turf in the 56th minute of Sunday’s match vs. his former team the Portland Timbers, right as Atlanta were scoring the equalizer in the 1-1 draw at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

“It would be a big loss,” said teammate Michael Parkhurst. “He’s been very important for us this season. He does a lot of things that probably go unnoticed, especially with some of the bigger names on the team getting the headlines.”

It puts Nagbe in danger of missing out when the Five Stripes face rivals Orlando City at home on Saturday (7 pm ET | ESPN – Full TV and streaming info). Up to this point, he’s started every league match and played the most minutes of any Atlanta player. In fact, before going off against the Timbers, he’d only missed 40 minutes and 13 seconds of MLS play.

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Though Nagbe has yet to score this season, he has been a key contributor in Atlanta’s climb to the top of the MLS standings. He’s also quickly become a Five Stripes fan favorite, as evidenced by his selection for his second MLS All-Star Game appearance as a member of the 2018 MLS All-Star Game Fan XI presented by Target.

For Atlanta, Nagbe’s played the role of a two-way player connecting the offense with the defense. His job is to circulate the ball from right to left and back to front, providing a link between the back line and the more attack-minded Miguel Almiron.

“Possession-wise, he’s so important for us because he doesn’t lose the ball,” said Parkhurst. “He’s just so clean in and out of pressure. He just makes our life a lot easier in the back.”

Defense has also become more of an emphasis for Nagbe within Martino’s system. Much like Carlos Carmona did for the team last year, Nagbe works to break up opponents’ nascent build-ups and provide defensive cover alongside fellow midfielder Jeff Larentowicz when Atlanta go on the attack.

“[Nagbe’s] a guy that you can depend on when we have to sit back a little bit and defend harder,” said Parkhurst. “He’s really stepped up his game in that aspect.”

If Nagbe is not able to start against Orlando, Martino said he can go with one of two options. Either he can move Julian Gressel into the middle and bring Hector “Tito” Villalba on along the right flank, or Martino could bring in Kevin Kratz, who brings the added dimension of being one of the best free-kick specialists in MLS.

“[Kratz] brings a little bit of a different look in there,” said defender Mikey Ambrose following the match on Sunday. “I thought he played well and he does well to connect everything. We lose a little bit, but we gain a little bit but either way; they’re both good players.”