It's not you, it's us: Resetting our expectations for Darlington Nagbe in Atlanta
The moment Darlington Nagbe scored his first professional goal, he became more than a talented prospect. He became an idea, a being that American soccer fans could pin their hopes on; a silky-smooth, lighting-quick soccer whiz-kid destined to do big things for the game in the United States.
To be fair, this wasn’t just any goal. Nagbe’s strike against Sporting Kansas City in July 2011 was absurd. It was audacious. It was the sort of play that can only be made by a player with supreme confidence and skill.
It started on the left wing, where Portland captain Jack Jewsbury floated in a free kick from near midfield. Sporting KC goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen punched it away and to the right, where Nagbe was waiting at the edge of the box. The then-20-year-old rookie calmly collected the ball out of the air, juggled it once, then twice, setting himself up to hit a laser of a volley into the top left corner. The rocket ended up winning 2011 Major League Soccer Goal of the Year.
At that point, we’d already seen Nagbe’s easy, electric pace, excellent vision and soft touch. We’d never seen that, though. If he could score that outlandish of a goal in such a relaxed, casual way, what couldn’t he do?
As it turns out, plenty. Nagbe isn’t the No. 10 of every American soccer fan’s dreams. He’s not the dangerous, goal-scoring winger who regular roasts defenders and puts the ball on a platter for his No. 9. He’s not, in short, what so many hoped or expected he’d be.
Nagbe is, however, an elite No. 8 in MLS. He’s one of the best box-to-box midfielders in the league, capable of pulling multiple opponents toward him and talented enough to slip by them and find a teammate in dangerous spots.
There isn’t a question of whether he’ll ever reach his potential. He already has. He could incrementally improve his stats, sure, but he’ll probably never be a 10-goal, 10-assist type of player. That’s fine. Despite our expectations, that’s not who Darlington Nagbe is. That’s not his problem. It’s ours.
Now, upon his trade from Portland to Atlanta United, it might not be an issue at any level for much longer.
Nagbe won’t carry the same sort of expectations with the Five Stripes that he did throughout his seven seasons in Portland. He’ll probably be a pure No. 8 under head coach Tata Martino, slotted alongside defensive midfielder Carlos Carmona in the base of Atlanta’s 4-2-3-1 setup. Nagbe played there often in Portland, but wasn’t really ever thought of as a box-to-box player for the Timbers. That won’t be the case in Atlanta.
With Miguel Almiron, Josef Martinez, Hector Villalba and, likely, Ezequiel Barco lining up in front of him, Nagbe won’t need to produce big numbers. He’ll need to help press defensively and serve as a link between Atlanta’s back line, Carmona and that attacking foursome. That sort of role is perfect for his skillset. He should thrive in it.
Atlanta’s other stars should benefit, too. Nagbe’s presence and ability should allow Almiron to play higher on the field, making things a little easier for him, and, correspondingly, for Martinez, in the Atlanta attack.
The trade could be a boon for Portland, too. The Timbers already have two excellent central midfielders in Diego Chara and David Guzman, meaning Nagbe was left out on the wing. He’s good there, but his inclination to cut inside and play somewhat centrally wasn’t always the best fit with the rest of Portland’s attack. He and Diego Valeri would sometimes occupy the same sort of spaces, and his hesitation to drive to the end line meant striker Fanendo Adi probably received less service than he would’ve if Portland used a more traditional winger. If the Timbers can use the MLS record amount of allocation money they received for Nagbe to sign a player more in that mold, they could easily improve.
But those are mere asides to the main story. Atlanta is just about the best possible MLS landing spot for Nagbe. With so much creativity on the roster, he won’t be asked to do as much, which might just free him to do more.
With a hopeful permanent home at the No. 8 and a bevy of talented attackers in front of him, our expectations for Nagbe should reset, too. Perhaps we’ll no longer pine for a player that never existed, but start to appreciate the one that’s been in front of us the whole time.