Inside the Darlington Nagbe deal and what it means for Columbus Crew SC

Despite rumors linking Darlington Nagbe with a return home to Ohio first bubbling to the surface last winter, Columbus Crew SC weren't convinced they had a real shot at acquiring the midfielder from Atlanta United until recently. 

Sure, the club kicked the tires on a potential deal last winter, but those were only preliminary discussions, the kind that are commonplace during the winter ahead of an MLS season. The Crew moved on during the season, chased other targets and the two clubs didn't revive talks until the 2019 campaign was coming to a close.

Even then, they weren't sure if Atlanta would be willing to part with Nagbe, one of the league's best box-to-box central midfielders. But on Wednesday it became official: Columbus got their man, sending more than a million in allocation money to Atlanta in exchange for Nagbe. 

“When you’re a really good player like Darlington, you’re going to fit in with any team," head coach Caleb Porter told MLSsoccer.com. "I don’t think Tata Martino or Frank de Boer ever thought about taking him out of the lineup. It wasn’t just me that liked him at Akron and Portland, every coach is going to like Darlington Nagbe.”

Nagbe and Porter first worked together at the University of Akron, where the midfielder was honored with the MAC Hermann Trophy as the 2010 College Soccer Player of the Year and helped the Zips win an NCAA national championship, and later at the Portland Timbers, where the pair won the 2015 MLS Cup.

“We’re obviously excited to get a player of his caliber for our roster to continue to strive for our team to be a consistent contender," Crew GM and president Tim Bezbatchenko said. "For this to get done so early is critical for our team. More importantly, we’re starting to evolve the team in what we’re trying to do tactically and from a cultural standpoint. ... Most importantly, Nagbe is a winner. We feel there were times we lacked a killer instinct, or that little bit of quality for us to see out games … Nagbe has all the attributes that we look for in starting to build a team, both the character and skills to win.”

As Bezbatchenko alludes to, Nagbe has won at every level. He has those triumphs with Porters in Akron and Portland. Then, in just two seasons with Atlanta, he won 2018 MLS Cup as well the U.S. Open Cup and Campeones Cup this year. He even won the 2017 Gold Cup with the US national team

“I don’t think you can quantify it," Bezbatchenko said of Nagbe's winning history. "You can quantify his stats and you look at that the teams he’s been on have won at every single level. Then you look at how is this player going to influence our team from a chemistry and culture standpoint? Those three things together really give you the answers. In any situation where you’re at in your team-building process, you may value one more than the others. We have a good core but what we needed to add in the locker room is more players that have won at the highest level."

At the beginning of his career, Nagbe was an attacking player, a No. 10 or winger. Porter began sporadically using him further back as a No. 8, unlocking his possession skills. In Atlanta, Nagbe was put there full-time and excelled as one of the league's best box-to-box midfielders, integral to the team's possession-based scheme. 

Porter wouldn't indicate whether he plans to play a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3 and where exactly Nagbe might fit in at this early stage of the offseason, as he can do it all for the Crew.

“Darlington is a modern midfielder and he’s going to be part of a modern system," Porter said. "The top clubs in the world dictate the game with the ball, but that’s not just what they do. Darlington is the type of player that will fit into the evolution that we’re making. We’ll control games with the ball, we want to push towards being a team that dictates the game in the front half and counter-presses."

Porter added that Nagbe will directly make their possession share go up but also will help in transition, defense and pressing. 

“He checks all the boxes and makes a good statement for the type of players we want," Porter said. "We want technical players, creative players, we want to be a team that has the ball. But we also want to be dynamic, aggressive. You need players that have range. We don’t want to be a predictable team, we want to play in a multi-faceted way.”

After initially thinking about acquiring the player, the Crew finally have their man. It's the perfect start to the offseason in Columbus. 

“Obviously very excited to add a player of the quality of Darlington Nagbe," Porter said. "Obviously, I’ve known him for 14 years and worked with him on two occasions with two different clubs and won two trophies together. Knowing him that well, I know what we’re getting. We’re really excited.”

"We're not done yet," Bezbatchenko added.

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