Atlanta United midfielder Darlington Nagbe (6) gets tripped up against the New England Revolution during the first half of an MLS soccer game, Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018. (John Amis)
Photo: John Amis
Photo: John Amis

Atlanta United tried to keep Darlington Nagbe

Atlanta United wanted to keep Darlington Nagbe. So much so, the player was offered a multi-year contract during the middle of its 2019 season, according to a person familiar with the situation. 

Nagbe turned down the contract because, according to the person, he wanted either to play out his current deal, which has one year remaining through the 2020 season, and eventually sign to play for one of the two MLS clubs in Ohio, or to be traded to one of those clubs. 

Not wanting to lose the player and get nothing in return, Atlanta United is trading Nagbe to Columbus for an undisclosed amount of Allocation Money. The exchange, reported Wednesday, is complete and will be announced Monday, which is when the MLS trade window opens. 

Atlanta United declined to comment. Nagbe also declined to comment. 

Nagbe’s family – his mother, in-laws and a sister – live in Ohio. Nagbe, 29, grew up in the Cleveland area and played in college at Akron before he was drafted by Portland in 2011, where he played until he was traded to Atlanta in December 2017 in exchange for more than $1 million in Allocation Money. His college coach, Caleb Porter, was hired by the Timbers and led them from 2013-17, winning the MLS Cup in 2015. Porter now coaches Columbus, taking over before the 2019 season. Nagbe and Porter are known to be close. 

According to the person, Nagbe’s desire to return to Ohio was first expressed to Atlanta United in January. A trade wasn’t requested, according to the person. But two members of Atlanta United’s front office, President Darren Eales and Vice President Carlos Bocanegra, were asked to listen to trade offers from either Columbus or expansion-side Cincinnati, if received. The person did not know if any offers were made by either club. 

Still, Nagbe arrived a day late to training camp in Fullerton, Calif., and didn’t train with the first team during his duration there. Manager Frank de Boer at first said that Nagbe didn’t train with the regulars because he arrived a day late to California and needed to improve his fitness. Eales and Bocanegra flew to California to meet with Nagbe. He left training camp a few days early, missing the final exhibition game at LAFC. Neither Nagbe, Eales or Bocanegra wanted to speak about the situation during training camp. 

Nagbe later described his late arrival and early departure as “personal,” saying he was happy in Atlanta and at Atlanta United.

Once the season started a few weeks later with the team’s first Champions League, at Herediano in Costa Rica, Nagbe was in the 18 and came on as a sub. He started 32 league games as part of 33 appearances. 

Nagbe will leave Atlanta United with three trophies: the MLS Cup in 2018 and the Campeones Cup and U.S. Open Cup in 2019. 

He also will leave as one of the more appreciated players on the team, according to his teammates. Nagbe rarely showed up in the stats as a scorer (just two goals with Atlanta United), or as an assist-provider (seven), but he was valuable because he was smooth with the ball, especially in tight spaces when opponents were pressing to create turnovers. 

He was known to be a good guy in the locker room, particularly close with Michael Parkhurst -- the two often played jokes on each other that would be posted on social media -- and Jeff Larentowicz. Parkhurst described Nagbe as a “homebody” Thursday because he so much enjoys the company of his wife and three kids. He was loved by Atlanta United supporters for his play, his smooth passing, and his odd routine of holding a shoe up to his ear like it was a phone in photos after victories.

“I would put him as top 1,2,3 performers for team this year,” Larentowicz said. “That’s huge. So important. So vital. A lot of our best games, we walked off the field saying, ‘Thank God we had Darlington.’ And that’s just who he is.”

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