Ask around Major League Soccer circles for the best midfielder in the league and you aren’t likely to get a consensus answer. Some may tell you it’s the Seattle Sounders’ Nicolas Lodeiro. Others may say Maxi Moralez from New York City FC, Charles Gil from the New England Revolution or Alejandro Pozuelo of Toronto FC.
Frank de Boer doesn’t have to think long before providing a response. For the Atlanta United head coach, the answer is Darlington Nagbe.
“For me, he is the best midfielder, one of the best few midfielders in the league, so we’re going to miss him, that’s for sure,” de Boer said of Nagbe on a teleconference call Sunday.
De Boer spent just one season coaching Nagbe in Atlanta last year but it was enough to rate the central midfielder highly.
Another MLS head coach who agrees with de Boer’s assessment is Caleb Porter. The Columbus Crew SC boss knows Nagbe well, having worked with him since he was a teenager, coaching him at the collegiate level with Akron and in MLS with the Portland Timbers. Nagbe, an Ohio native, helped Porter to a national championship with the Zips and an MLS Cup title while in Portland.
Following Porter’s departure from the Timbers after the 2017 season, Nagbe was traded to Atlanta, helping United win its first championship two seasons ago.
With Porter returning to coaching with the Crew in 2019, he wanted to reunite with the midfielder. That interest was mutual and, although it took a year, Nagbe was acquired from Atlanta this offseason for $1.05 million in allocation money as well as a 2020 international roster spot.
“For me, I think he’s one of the best coaches in the league,” Nagbe said of Porter this week. “There’s no denying that. He’s won in Portland and he had good seasons in Portland as well.
“He’s someone I’ve known since I was 16, 17, so obviously that relationship is there. He’s someone that I can turn to if needed but I haven’t needed to so far. Obviously he knows how I play, he knows how I like to play and I know what he wants from this team and his players as well. So I think just the mesh of both, the personal relationship if needed and the understanding of each other and how he wants me to play and me knowing what he wants from the team, I think it just makes a good partnership.”
Through four games of the COVID-19-altered 2020 season, Nagbe, 30, is proving both de Boer and Porter right. Although he is yet to register a goal or an assist for the Crew, Nagbe has been key in the Black & Gold’s 3-0-1 record to begin the year.
Nagbe’s ability on the ball and the way in which he works out of tight spaces and transitions the defense to the attack helped change a Black & Gold midfield that didn’t quite work in Year 1 under Porter in 2019.
“I mean when you look at possession numbers, he’s one of the best in the league,” Porter said of Nagbe. “So there’s a lot of value in that in a team. Not every player is going to be the one that scores the goal or gets the assist but I can tell you this, he’s probably connected to every goal we score in some way, shape or form.”
On Tuesday, Nagbe’s value will be on full display as his current Crew team meets Atlanta in their final Group E game of the MLS is Back Tournament. While Columbus has prospered this year with Nagbe controlling the midfield, United has struggled with life after Nagbe, going 2-2-0 overall and sitting at 0-2 in Group E.
And while the knee injury to forward Josef Martinez is the first issue pointed to for the slow start, it’s hard to deny that losing Nagbe hasn’t played a major part.
“Not many in this league and also in Europe have that,” de Boer said of Nagbe’s ability on the ball, “like Frenkie De Jong, [Sergio] Busquets, those players, they scan their environment well and he has the same.
“He will not score many goals, maybe one or two a season, but he’s like the cement between the stones. He’s so important for them, but also in pressing when they lose the ball, he has the speed also to track back.”
For Nagbe, this game won’t mean much more than any of his other first four in black and gold. While he realizes he faces his former team for the first time, Nagbe won’t make any game bigger than it needs to be, even if there are familiar faces on the other side of the field.
“I think for me, just personally, it was good to go there and kind of, for my stuff, show that I could perform without Caleb,” Nagbe said of his time in Atlanta. “Obviously I have such a comfort level with Caleb. So I think for me, it was just good just to grow as a person and an individual.
“I’m looking forward to tomorrow. Obviously the game will be the game, but then looking forward to seeing the guys. I became friends with those guys, so it will be good to see them.”
Some may say that Nagbe has been a bit underrated throughout his 10-year MLS career. He doesn’t get the plaudits of some of the league’s top players despite winning and producing everywhere he’s been.
Nagbe doesn’t care about the attention, however. He was happy to quietly find success in Portland and to repeat that in Atlanta and now hopes to do the same back with Porter at the Crew.
“I think it was just the situation in Columbus,” Nagbe said. “I think the timing of everything that was going on. Obviously the big one, Caleb coming in and then the rest of it, ownership, a new stadium and facilities and things like that, the team being saved. And then the other part was just wanting to play for the Crew at some point in my career. Not wanting to come back when I was older, older. So I think just the timing of it all. I think it was a good time to come back and join the team.
“I’m definitely happy to be back with Caleb and back under him coaching me. And I’m happy to be with the Columbus Crew.”