From Portland to Atlanta United, Nagbe still rolling

December 15, 2017 Atlanta - New Atlanta United midfielder Darlington Nagbe (background left) is welcomed by fans at the Team Store at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Friday, December  on Friday, December 15, 2017. Atlanta United introduced midfielder Darlington Nagbe to the media on Friday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Hyosub Shin / hshin@ajc.com
Caption
December 15, 2017 Atlanta - New Atlanta United midfielder Darlington Nagbe (background left) is welcomed by fans at the Team Store at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Friday, December on Friday, December 15, 2017. Atlanta United introduced midfielder Darlington Nagbe to the media on Friday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Hyosub Shin / hshin@ajc.com

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Darlington Nagbe wouldn’t be the player he is for Atlanta United without the experience he gained during seven years in Portland, where he became one of the best midfielders in the U.S.

On Sunday, he will face the Timbers for the first time since he was traded from gritty and cool Providence Park to shiny and sleek Mercedes-Benz Stadium in December.

Typically understated, Nagbe said he’s not sure if the game will feel any different.

“You always want to win no matter how you are playing against,” he said. “I am looking forward to seeing the guys.”

That’s about as much excitement as Nagbe will release during interviews.

While it can be debated whether Blue Star Donuts is cooler than The Varsity, it can’t be debated that it seems as if Nagbe has gone from one good situation to another.

At Portland, playing mostly for Caleb Porter, who was also his coach in college at Akron, Nagbe became one of the better midfielders in MLS. He scored the league’s goal of the year as a rookie in 2011 and worked his way into the U.S. men’s national team roster by virtue of his ability to work from spaces as tight as a MARTA turnstile, passing and occasionally shooting.

His time in Portland was capped with the 2015 MLS Cup.

But things went sour for the team in 2016. They failed to make the playoffs. The team bounced back in 2017, finishing atop the Western Conference, but they were eliminated by Houston in the semifinals. Porter and the club agreed a new direction was needed, so he left.

Nagbe wanted a fresh start, and Atlanta United was atop his list. He left. The two teams announced a trade Dec. 13.

Transitioning from being an attacking player on the left wing with Portland to a two-way central midfielder with Atlanta United, Nagbe has helped his new club to the top of the Supporters’ Shield standings with 33 points from 16 games.

This success despite Nagbe having yet to score and posting just three assists.

Atlanta United manager Gerardo Martino said it’s hard for him to compare Nagbe with his time in Portland because he didn’t coach him then. His position is different. The teams run different formation.

But Nagbe’s production is invaluable, and he and Martino believe that he’s a better player.

“I see the game differently,” Nagbe said. “Being with Tata, the things he stresses. Pressing. Possession. Being on the front foot. That’s made me a better player. Opened my eyes more a little bit.”

Nagbe has never been known as stat-filler. He has never scored more than nine goals nor had more than seven assists.

His work sets up others.

To wit: Atlanta United leads MLS with 33 goals. Josef Martinez leads the league with 14 goals. Without Nagbe turning defense into offense, neither would be possible. Martinez has faced former teams three times. Each went well.

“Hopefully it goes well for Nagbe, also,” Martinez said. “It’s an important game for him because of all the time and all the memories he has with Portland. It’s always good to have a good result against your ex-team.

Diego Chara likely will try to negate Nagbe’s influence Sunday. Nagbe has great respect for the Colombian, saying he’s the most underrated player in MLS.

"He's very feisty, a great ball winner — one of the best ball-winners in the league,” Nagbe said. “He might foul me a few times, but it's all love. He's my guy so we'll just get back up and keep playing."

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