“Darlington was a vital part of our success over the last two seasons, and we want to thank him for his service to the club and wish him the best of luck in his future,” Atlanta United Vice President and Technical Director Carlos Bocanegra said in a statement provided by the team. “As with any offseason, there are difficult decisions to be made. Ultimately, this trade serves the best interests of our club long-term.”
After he was drafted by Portland in 2011, Nagbe helped the club win the MLS Cup in 2015. Caleb Porter, who was Nagbe’s coach at Akron before joining him in Portland, was fired in November 2017. Nagbe was acquired by Atlanta United in a trade with Portland a month later.
Team owner Arthur Blank's private jet picked him up in Cleveland to fly him to Atlanta.
A few hours after the jet landed, Nagbe was greeted by more than 350 people at a signing at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. All that appreciation, and Nagbe had yet to play.
“Things like that make me know how excited everyone is about me and the opportunity they’ve given me,” Nagbe said after the session. “I’m thankful and blessed.”
Nagbe soon showed why Bocanegra described him as the team’s top target when it learned he wanted to leave Stumptown. The team acquired him in exchange for $750,000 in General Allocation Money, $300,000 in Targeted Allocation Money and an International spot.
Nagbe started 55 league games, helping Atlanta United win the MLS Cup in 2018 under manager Gerardo Martino, and the Campeones Cup and U.S. Open Cup in 2019 under manager Frank de Boer.
Nagbe’s contributions weren’t in goals or assists. He had only two and seven, respectively.
Nagbe’s value was in how simply he could turn defense into offense with a slight shoulder turn or hip swivel to create whatever space needed to get away from one defender and get upfield. Or how he could read an opponent’s counterattack and get to the right spot just in time to either slow it to give his teammates time to get back, or break up the attack by himself.
He seemed to have an understanding with whomever was closest to him on the field: Jeff Larentowicz, Eric Remedi, Michael Parkhurst, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, Miguel Almiron, Ezequiel Barco and Pity Martinez.
Larentowicz said there were many times as the players walked off the field they would say, “Thank God we had Darlington.”
Nagbe, or D, as he was referred to by his teammates and sometimes by Martino, was especially close with Parkhurst. The two often roomed together on the road. Parkhurst said they saw the game the same way.
Nagbe’s time in Atlanta United wasn’t all roses.
He didn't fully participate in preseason training in Fullerton, Calif. earlier this season. He arrived a day late, didn't train with the first team, and left a few days early. During one scrimmage, his lack of effort was noticeable. Atlanta United President Darren Eales and Bocanegra flew to California to speak to Nagbe. The details of that conversation weren't revealed, but some outlets reported that Nagbe was trying to force a trade. A person close to the situation last week said that Atlanta United was asked to consider offers from either team in Ohio if one was received.
During the season, when Nagbe wasn’t selected to participate with the U.S. men’s national team, he said he hadn’t heard from manager Gregg Berhalter. He later said that Nagbe turned down an invitation.
Replacing Nagbe will be difficult because there aren’t many players in MLS with a similar skill set and ability to play offense and defense. Emerson Hyndman comes closest on the roster, but the club hasn’t announced if it has purchased him Bournemouth. Hyndman played during 2019 while on loan from the Premier League club.
Atlanta United tried to keep Nagbe, offering him a new multi-year contract during the season. Nagbe declined the offer, according to a person familiar with the situation.
Nagbe will join a Columbus franchise that has experienced a lot of turmoil the previous seasons. It appears to have found good footing with new ownership and plans for a new stadium closer to downtown that is scheduled to open in the summer of 2021. The team averaged 14,856 this season at MAPFRE Stadium.
The team, which failed to make the playoffs this season after finishing in 10th with 38 points, has talent on its roster in striker Gyasi Zardes, midfielder Wil Trapp, among others. Nagbe has one year left on his contract. He had a guaranteed salary of $665,499.96.