Darlington Nagbe says it will be surreal when his new team, Atlanta United, hosts his old team, Portland, in the MLS Cup on Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“It will be a good game,” he said. “It will be fun for both teams.”
After seven years with the Timbers during which he won the MLS Cup in 2015, Nagbe asked to be traded after last season. The coach he appreciated, Caleb Porter, left following the season. Nagbe was ready for a new challenge and Atlanta United was ready to acquire a player that technical director Carlos Bocanegra said was among the best in the league.
Had he known then that the Timbers were going to make the championship game now, Nagbe said he still would requested to be traded or transferred.
“I think so, especially with coach Porter leaving,” he said. “We had a good relationship.”
The trade was announced in December for $750,000 in General Allocation Money, $300,000 in Targeted Allocation Money and an International spot. It was among the largest trades in league history.
Nagbe was flown by private jet to Atlanta and introduced on a Friday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. More than 300 fans lined up for photos and autographs with the midfielder.
“It excited me, surprised me,” he said. “I was like ‘Wow,’ just for a little press conference. It just shows the city, how passionate they are about the game, the team and the opportunity to be a part of something special.
“I love sports. I’m a fan of other teams, as well. When the team you support gets the opportunity to be a great team and an opportunity to play in the finals for a championship it creates a buzz around the city.”
Before the trade, Jeff Larentowicz said he knew Nagbe was a great teammate and great in the locker room. He was excited to get the chance to play alongside him.
Nagbe hasn’t disappointed.
Manager Gerardo Martino inserted Nagbe into the middle of a formation. Surrounded by teammates who are able to change positions, Nagbe helped Martino make the switch from a 4-2-3-1 to a 3-5-2 formation because of his ability to control the ball in tight spaces and start attacks. Martino has appreciated Nagbe’s decision making.
“He has been the pause for the team in the sense that last year we were very back and forth, probably too much so at times in terms of attacking and defending,” Martino said. “This year, he has served as that ... balance for us, when it’s time to attack and when it’s time to slow things down.”
Though Nagbe failed to score for the first time in his career and he had just three assists, which were his fewest since he had just one in 2012, Nagbe’s defense was better than expected and his influence on results evident when he didn’t play.
After sustaining an adductor injury against Portland on June 24, Atlanta United went 6-2-2 without him. That’s still a good record, but consider the team lost just five of the 23 games he started and two of those losses featured red cards to Atlanta United players.
“To have him here has been great for the team,” Larentowicz said.
Though Portland will always be considered a home because it was his first home after being drafted out of Akron and two of his kids were born there, Nagbe is enjoying living in Atlanta. He doesn’t get out much because he said his family is busy and they have a third child on the way. He said the city is bigger and greener than the thought.
He’s especially enjoyed the anonymity that can come with living in a metro area of almost 6 million people. He got a kick out of being interviewed by a local TV station reporter a few weeks ago who spoke to him at a gas station for a segment on driving in bad weather. He said he was identified on the broadcast as “driver.”
“I got my back and told my wife about it,” he said.
It was actually the second time that he was interviewed by a TV station reporter who wasn’t aware they were talking to one of the better soccer players of his generation. The first happened while he was playing for Portland, but in Cleveland during the offseason at a Cavaliers game. That time he said he was labeled as “fan.”
Typically soft-spoken during interviews, Nagbe laughed loudly after telling those stories.
“Everyone at the club has been great,” he said. “People that recognize me and my family have been great to us.”
Those who do know him, his former Portland teammates, have corresponded about the title game. Nagbe said he doesn’t if they will get a chance to see Alvas Powell, whom he considers his little brother, Diego Valeri, Liam Ridgewell or Sebastian Blanco before the championship.
Nagbe didn’t have any secrets on how to defeat Portland because the team has a new coach, Giovanni Savarese, who put in a counter-attacking playing style that was different than what Nagbe played under Porter. Nagbe did offer a few keys: Attack well, take care of the ball and execute when Atlanta United does have possession.
Overall, Nagbe seems happy with his decision and the move.
“Coming here, we’ve had a great season,” he said. “Great players. Happy with my role and the coaching staff. Get to play in the final. Only thing is we didn’t get the Supporters’ Shield, but we are in the finals now.”