Now that Atlanta United has Darlington Nagbe, what kind of player is he and where will he play?
Answers to that question show why Nagbe is among the more polarizing figures in MLS.
Some view him as one of league’s the best midfielders, a player so technically gifted, fast and intelligent that he should be scoring at least 10 goals and adding at least 10 assists every season.
That’s a feat Nagbe has yet to accomplish since joining the league in 2011. Really, he’s never come close with his best season being nine goals and four assists in 2013. That was also the 27-year-old’s career-high in goals with his career-high in assists (7) coming the next season.
But ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman said that belief is more the believer’s problem than Nagbe’s.
“I think Darlington Nagbe is a perfect example of a player that has shown MLS media that we need to mature and evolve in our assessment of players,” Twellman said. “I think too often we think of players in goals and assists, and only goals and assists. But as league the has evolved and as the sport evolves in our country, the technical analysis will evolve.”
What Nagbe has done and is expected to do is be a player that makes those around him better.
Fox Sports analyst Alexi Lalas loves how good Nagbe is in possession, how confident he is in tight spaces, how effective he is as an outlet to relieve pressure on the defense.
Nagbe led the league last season in passing accuracy (92 percent), which will strengthen the Five Stripes, which finished seventh in passing accuracy (80.7 percent) and led the league in possession (57.8 percent) and was second in goals scored (70).
“He will really fit in well with what Atlanta United is doing,” Lalas said. “He has technical ability to rival anyone on the team.”
There are questions about Nagbe’s defense, which Atlanta United plays as a team in a high pressing system. Matthew Doyle, senior writer for mlssoccer.com, wonders how Nagbe will fit into the press, particularly if he plays in the middle of the formation.
“Big problem with him in that role, and we’ve seen this with the U.S. and Timbers, is his defense isn’t great,” Doyle said. “His re-press is really slow. He is committed defensively, but he doesn’t sniff out the next play.”
Doyle said that may be a reflection of Nagbe never being asked to press aggressively and pointed out that just because Nagbe hasn’t been consistently strong on defense doesn’t mean he can’t be.
He compared Nagbe moving to Atlanta United to Benny Feilhaber joining Sporting KC. Feilhaber wasn’t a strong defender with New England, but when the midfielder joined Peter Vermes’ squad he developed into a capable two-way player.
“He’s not the first player who has received this criticism who either got the right coach or the come-to-Jesus moment in his career,” Doyle said.
So Nagbe is strong on offense and perhaps needs to improve on defense.
So, what position will he play? Where will he fit in?
That’s the other question about Nagbe throughout his career: he’s so good that he can play anywhere, but doesn’t seem to dominate as expected anywhere. For example, he played defensive midfielder in seven games last season, left attacking midfielder in 16 games and right midfielder in six games last season, according to whoscored.com.
The only hole in Atlanta United’s roster is at left midfielder, where Yamil Asad scored seven goals and notched 13 assists. The team hasn’t announced if Asad will return after being on loan from Velez Sarsfield in Argentina last season.
Lalas said he likes Nagbe out wide, but thinks he would also do well playing beside or underneath Almiron.
“I don’t get hung up on the positional thing with Nagbe,” Lalas said. “I just want him on the field. He’s so smart, he can figure it out. Atlatna is different, a run-and-gun type of offense. He has the speed and soccer ability to fit in and provide a missing element, or something different.”
Doyle and Twellman like Nagbe in the middle, where playing beside Almiron he is being set up to succeed. Twellman thinks Atlanta United manager Gerardo Martino will help Nagbe become the player everyone thinks he can be
“ … On Atlanta, he will actually be shown for the exact player he is,” Twellman said. “He’s the perfect player in youy lineup when you say to him that he doesn’t have to be the superstar. He will make Almiron, (Hector) Villalba, (Julian) Gressel, (Josef) Martinez better.”