Darlington Nagbe - Frank de Boer - talking sideline
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Atlanta's Darlington Nagbe earning Frank de Boer's trust in range of roles

MARIETTA, Ga. — With high-priced, high-profile attacking talent in abundance for Atlanta United, who did Frank de Boer insert as his No. 10 in a crucial 2-0 win last weekend at the New England Revolution?

Not Pity Martinez. Not Ezequiel Barco. But Darlington Nagbe.

Remember him? It's easy for Nagbe — a quiet but quality and versatile midfielder — to get lost in the chatter surrounding Atlanta’s headline-grabbing imports. Yet he may arguably be their most important player. 

Since signing for Atlanta ahead of the 2018 season, Nagbe quickly became one of the first names on previous coach Tata Martino’s team sheet. Despite an injury that held him out for 10 games last season, he started every single match in which he was available, playing the full 90 minutes all but six times.

His skill in tight spaces on the ball gave Martino’s attack another dimension, a trait that has been noticed by Atlanta's new regime.

“I think there is maybe no better player in MLS who is comfortable when he gets the ball with his man on his back in the midfield,” De Boer said.

De Boer also praised Nagbe's versatility in midfield and his knack for reading the game and knowing the space he needs to occupy both in possession and out of it, saying that's why he took up the No. 10 role with Atlanta in Foxborough.

“I think if you play against a team that's going to press very high and be in our faces, then you need a No. 10 who also drops into the midfield,” De Boer explained. “That's the reason [Nagbe started there], because New England always want to press so high every time they push forward. Sometimes you need somebody who can dictate the rhythm. He's one of the players who can do that.”

The abilities De Boer describes should theoretically fit US men’s national team manager Gregg Berhalter's intricate system, one that relies on keeping the ball in difficult positions to unbalance the opponent. 

Yet Nagbe has quietly disappeared from the national team over the last year, receiving only one cap from former interim manager Dave Sarachan in 2018, and being left out of Berhalter's first squads this year. 

If Berhalter has any questions over Nagbe's versatility, he might look back to last weekend.

De Boer had a well-crafted game plan, but he had to “throw it in the water” after 10 minutes when injury forced Eric Remedi’s exit.

Not a problem. Nagbe simply dropped into a deeper role and played next to Jeff Larentowicz for the remainder of the match.