Darlington Nagbe was told a private jet was coming to pick him up in Cleveland and take him to Atlanta to join his new team, Atlanta United.
The impact didn’t hit Nagbe until the jet rolled down the runway.
Nagbe was told that he was going to take part in a meet-and-greet for Atlanta United fans at the team store at Mercedes-Benz Stadium soon after the jet touched down. Despite just a day’s notice, 350 people showed up bringing jerseys, soccer balls or scarves for Nagbe to sign, and some also brought their children to pose with him for photographs. Nagbe was surprised by how many people came.
Wearing a gray suit and standing in front of a wall of red-and-black striped Atlanta United jerseys, including one set right in the center with his name and No. 6 on the back, Nagbe shook every hand and smiled for every photograph.
“Things like that make me know how excited everyone is about me and the opportunity they’ve given me,” Nagbe said. “I’m thankful and blessed.”
Nagbe said both experiences re-affirmed his decision that Atlanta United was his only choice when he let Portland’s executives know at the end of the season that after seven years and one MLS Cup with the Timbers he was ready to move on in what became a historic trade.
The feeling was mutual.
Atlanta United Technical Director Carlos Bocanegra said that Nagbe was one of 3-4 players in MLS that he thought would really benefit the team. Bocanegra appreciated Nagbe’s dribbling ability, his passing ability and his versatility to play most any position across the midfield.
When Nagbe became available, Bocanegra said it became Atlanta United’s No. 1 mission to acquire him. The Five Stripes got their man in exchange for $750,000 in General Allocation Money, $300,000 in Targeted Allocation Money and an International spot. There also are incentives related to Nagbe’s performance that could push the deal to as much $1.65 million, which would set an MLS record for an inter-league trade.
Nagbe said he doesn’t feel any extra pressure knowing how much he cost Atlanta United.
“There’s always that pressure of wanting to do well as a professional, for my teammates and for the organization,” he said. “I think that’s pressure enough already.”
It may seem like Atlanta United gave up a lot for a player that has never finished in the top three in MVP voting, never scored more than nine goals or had more than seven assists in a season. One of the criticisms of Nagbe is his talent and intelligence should be result in more impact stats or an ability to dominate one position.
Nagbe said he can improve in the final third when it comes to scoring and assists, and will work to do that with Atlanta United, but didn’t seem bothered by some who think he should do more.
“Soccer, the culture’s different everywhere and the style of play,” he said. “I think it just depends where you are. Different countries or teams prefer guys that can have more of an impact on a team than goals or assists. Some teams are looking for guys who get goals or assists. It’s just different, however that person looks at it.”
Bocanegra doesn’t want Nagbe to change one thing about how he plays.
“Has he unlocked his potential? For me, he’s living his potential,” Bocanegra said. “He’s never going to be the guy that we expect to score 15 goals. I want him to do exactly what he’s been doing for past seven years in the league and with the national team.
“Everything he has done ... that was the player we were looking to get at the club.”