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Where does Emerson Hyndman fit in Atlanta United’s midfield?

Permutations of Atlanta United’s midfield are nearly endless, but Hyndman’s role in them is far from a settled matter.

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MLS: San Jose Earthquakes at Atlanta United FC Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

With about half a season to evaluate his play since his arrival last season, Emerson Hyndman remains an enigma for Atlanta United fans. What are his best traits? What is his most effective role in a team? IS HE THE NAGBE REPLACEMENT™?

One thing we definitely know — because we see it with our own two eyes — is that Hyndman is not the most intimidating figure. Atlanta United officially lists him at 5-feet 9-inches and weighing a laughable 165 pounds (Wikipedia has him at the same height, and 31 pounds less, which seems more accurate). Now, we all know focusing on a player’s size can be a red herring when determining a player’s ability — the best player in the world, Lionel Messi, is roughly the same size as Hyndman. But Messi also isn’t a central midfielder who will constantly be surrounded by Ivy League graduates kicking him constantly trying to nick the ball. Hyndman, if he is indeed the successor to Darlington Nagbe as the midfielder who is paired alongside an Eric Remedi or Jeff Larentowicz, will be.

When you close your eyes and think about a classic Darlington Nagbe moment, what do you picture? It’s not Nagbe making a run into the box and scoring a goal. What many of you will picture in your mind is Nagbe using his strength, physicality, and deft touch to receive the ball in a tight situation, shield off onrushing opposition players, and turn into space in the attack. Is this something Hyndman can replicate? The truth is we don’t really know. With Nagbe’s omnipresence in Atlanta’s squad last season, Hyndman was never needed for such a role.

But let’s be honest — the answer is probably no. Frank de Boer has intimated it himself on multiple occasions since last season’s conclusion, most recently about a week ago when meeting with media on the first day of preseason training.

“[Carlos Bocanegra] knows exactly what I want,” De Boer told media last week. “For me, especially the loss of Nagbe, we have to have a good replacement for him. Of course, we will not get back [a player] of that quality, but another player can have different qualities than Nagbe and they will fill up that gap.”

The Athletic reported in December that Hyndman will earn around $800,000 this season, escalating to about $1 million over his three-year contract. That’s a very hefty chunk of change by MLS standards, and the figure represents the standing of a player who will be a key figure in the squad. But if he’s not The Replacement™, then where doe he play?

The obvious other role (and in Hyndman’s case, the only other reasonable role for him) is positioned further forward as an attacking midfielder behind the striker. It’s where he played most often last season in the absence of Ezequiel Barco, who missed months with injuries and international duty. Hyndman’s goal in the Campeones Cup showed exactly why he can be so effective in that position.

During the stagnant first few months of De Boer’s tenure, the manager decried the lack of players making runs beyond or alongside Josef Martinez into the box. Hyndman showed a propensity for making those runs, particularly in the channels on the edge of the box that Miguel Almiron was so adept at exploiting. There’s clearly a role for Hyndman here, but is he really going to occupy one of the most prized positions on the pitch with the likes of Pity Martinez and Ezequiel Barco shunted out to the wings?

There seems to be a disconnect here. Hyndman is (reportedly) getting paid like a star player, but there doesn’t appear to be a natural place for him in the starting XI.