League Games Played: 28 Appearances, 28 Starts
Darlington came to Atlanta United in the off-season in what was technically the most expensive intra-league transfer by $50,000, if only to rub the price in the noses of Orlando City, who had splashed out $1.6 million for Dom Dwyer. A good chunk of the price was in the form of incentives, which Darlington was unlikely to, and in fact did not, meet. Still, he was wrested from the boring tactics of Caleb Porter and the hipster wasteland of Portland to form a new and integral spot in the Five Stripes midfield.
What went right this season: Obviously, missing 11 games as a result of injury does not count as something that went right, but Darlington has played a full slate of games just once in his 8-year MLS career. He missed 7 games in 2017, for example. Atlanta went 7-2-2 without him for PPG of 2.09, slightly better than the season average of 2.03. However, that stretch of missed games included two against Orlando and one against San Jose, so it doesn’t really count. In the 28 games he did play, his presence was unmistakable. He bossed the midfield: he was consistently the most accurate passer on the team and was nearly impossible to dispossess. Most importantly, Atlanta and Tata Martino had recognized this in him, and played him more centrally than Portland typically had. As a result, he became the linchpin in the transitional play from defense to attack, and thrived on it. Moreover, his play, while generally not spectacular, is a thing of beauty to watch.
What he needs to improve on: For the first time in his career, Darlington ended the season with no goals to his credit. But not for want of trying; he had one called off against NYCFC by VAR and, amongst others, had two very good chances early against Portland in the MLS Cup. His 3 assists were pretty much at his career average, though. Clearly, with all its offensive firepower Atlanta does not need him to score, but probably does need him to be a scoring threat, if only to spread the defense.
What role will he play in 2019: If Frank de Boer follows his historical preference to play out of the back, Darlington’s importance to the team will only increase. Transitional play will become even more significant than it already is, and consequently Darlington’s ability to direct that transition will be a key part of the overall game plan.