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How will Darlington Nagbe’s return to Atlanta United reshape the lineup?

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Fitting the offseason acquisition into the squad won’t be as easy as it seems.

MLS: Portland Timbers at Atlanta United FC Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

Anyone remember Darlington Nagbe?

Headed into this season, we weren’t 100% sure where exactly he’d fit after he was acquired from Portland. Would he play on the left wing at the spot vacated by Yamil Asad, a position he was called upon to fill with the Timbers? Would he play centrally, even with some legitimate options on the rolls?

That answer became clearer in the coming weeks of Nagbe’s arrival as Carlos Carmona headed home to Chile to be closer to his family and the team brought in Ezequiel Barco, who has settled in at the primary left wing after his return to the lineup. That opened up a slot for Nagbe to slot in to the midfield in a box-to-box role alongside Jeff Larentowicz. He’s been able to fit in nicely despite needing to adjust to Tata Martino’s system.

Nagbe’s play has been impressive when one considers the difference in tactics between his former and current club and how seamless the transition appears on the field. In Portland, he had more freedom to attack, as he often played alongside two defensive midfielders. In Atlanta however, Nagbe is asked to sit back more often, press the opposing backline when given the opportunity, and still attempt to find Atlanta’s pacy attackers on a counter.

However, things took a turn in late June for Nagbe against - coincidentally - his former club.

Before the hour mark of Atlanta’s match against the Timbers on June 24, Nagbe came off for what appeared to be a relatively minor injury. It was far from minor. A couple of days later, the club announced that he would be sidelined for two to three months with an injury to his right adductor.

Interestingly enough, acquiring a true defensive midfielder to fill a Carmona-esque role - was already in the makings. Eric Remedi was announced a day after the Nagbe news. Remedi, in his brief spell with the club, has done reasonably well. He doesn’t have the same attacking mindset that Nagbe has, but he provides that steady hand, has a nose for the ball, can push play along as needed and isn’t afraid to do the dirty work to erase chances for the other team.

With the news that Nagbe has returned to training with the team, it’s not out of the realm of possibility to see him in the lineup on Saturday when Atlanta travel to the Colorado Rapids. The reasonable thing to do is ease him in. I’d imagine that he’d come on for Larentowicz in the 60th minute to stretch his legs and wouldn’t be opposed to seeing him do the same against the San Jose Earthquakes come next Wednesday. That should equal a full return to the XI on the 23rd against Real Salt Lake at home.

Therein lies the problem: how will that look exactly? The move that probably makes the most sense is having Remedi maintain a strictly holding role and letting Nagbe have the freedom to go forward as needed. That, of course, leaves Larentowicz as the odd man out.

This lineup also assumes that Greg Garza and Mikey Ambrose aren’t fit by the RSL match, so that’s why I’ve slotted Chris McCann at left back. It also doesn’t account for Julian Gressel, which means that there will be not just one tough decision for Tata Martino to make. (I mean where to play Gressel and Larentowicz, of course, and not that other tough decision.)

This brings us to another possibility. Not having Barco or Tito Villalba in the XI at all. If it’s Barco that sits, it lets Villalba switch to the left and allows Gressel to start on the right. The same is true for Barco if Villalba doesn’t end up among the starters.

There’s also another possibility: leave Remedi off and let Larentowicz play in his spot. That would give Atlanta a pair of players that have had plenty of exposure to the league in its midfield. If it chooses this option while deciding to leave Barco/Villalba and Remedi on the bench, it makes for some strong substitutions in late game situations. For example, taking McCann off for Remedi and letting Larentowicz drop back, and/or inserting a Barco/Villalba in the attack for Gressel.

You can see that it’s not a cut and dry decision for Atlanta when Nagbe comes back. I suppose that’s a good problem to have to an extent, but for Martino and his staff, they’ll need to make some hard choices to: a) not compromise the team’s chemistry and b) give them the best shot at winning and making a run to the MLS Cup. Have any ideas on potential lineups? Think I’m making no sense at all? Let me know in the comments.