Just a week into Atlanta United’s offseason and the first huge domino has seemingly fallen. The Athletic’s Paul Tenorio and Sam Stejskal report that the long-rumored trade of Darlington Nagbe to his hometown Columbus Crew SC will be finalized soon. Although the move can’t be made official until Monday’s trade window opens, the writing has been on the wall for quite some time.
While Josef Martinez deservedly gets the majority of the headlines when people talk about Atlanta United’s success, it could be argued that Darlington Nagbe has been just as important to the club’s triumphs over the last two seasons. The U.S. international has a calming influence in the midfield that no one else in the league provides. His ability to keep possession in the stickiest of situations and transition from defense to attack in the blink of an eye are extraordinary skills that you just don’t see in Major League Soccer often.
DSS alumnus Haris Kruskic had the best description of Darlington I’ve ever come across:
Don’t really know how to explain this but I feel like a baby being protected in the arms of its loving mother when Nagbe has possession of a soccer ball.— Haris Kruskic (@HKruskic) October 6, 2019
This is what Atlanta United will be missing without Nagbe. The question now is: how does the club go about replacing him in the lineup? The answer will shape the club’s recruitment strategy this offseason.
One like-for-like option could already be on the roster. If you’re looking for someone who closely resembles Nagbe’s style of play, the answer is obviously Emerson Hyndman. While not an exact replica, Hyndman offers some of the same qualities that Nagbe provided. A clean first touch, a calming presence on the ball and the ability to control possession. The issue is, he’s not nearly as good as Nagbe at those things and doesn’t offer the same dynamic presence on the dribble that was so valuable in transition.
Emerson Hyndman is the like-for-like answer if you’re willing to admit that replacing Nagbe is an impossible task. He won’t be as good or effective as Nagbe was, but he’ll offer the same type of characteristics to the side.
With a splash of ginger and mate
With Nagbe a no-brainer for any lineup, the choice was always whether Larentowicz or Remedi would start next to him. Why not play them both? What happens when the choice is Larentowicz AND Remedi? The knock on Remedi this season was his inability to stay disciplined as a defensive midfielder. Perhaps a solution to that problem is giving him protection and allowing him to operate as a true box-to-box midfielder. He’s certainly a different player than Nagbe stylistically, but he’s proven his quality under Tata Martino. If he’s able to comfortably bomb up and down the midfield, maybe he adds a new dimension to the team?
These two options are the low budget answers. If money is extremely tight after being spent elsewhere via contract extensions or other additions to the roster.
Just find someone in MLS who is like Nagbe
Make it rain
The most obvious answer is to hope Atlanta United have a metric ton’s worth of Targeted Allocation Money stacked up, or open up a DP spot. Let’s be honest here, Darlington Nagbe is/was a Designated Player, he was just unlucky enough to come into the league via the SuperDraft and to be a domestic player. His talent and impact warranted a DP spot with DP money. The only way to really replace his production and influence is to splash some cash and rely on your scouting system.
We’ve said time and time again that this roster doesn’t fit Frank de Boer. Obviously Nagbe didn’t fall into that category, but his departure opens up an opportunity for the club to find someone optimal for the system De Boer wants to implement. Whether it’s a Dutch playmaker or a South American who plays exactly like Nagbe. If you have money in this league the possibilities are wide and plenty. With the connections that Eales, Bocanegra and De Boer have around the world and the scouting team’s efforts, there’s a great replacement out there. It’s just a matter of the money and possible Designated Player slot being there to bring them in.
How effectively Atlanta United replaces Nagbe will likely determine how the 2020 season goes. This will be one of the biggest decisions the club’s front office has had to make in its short history.