Atlanta United was about as big a hit as Major League Soccer could have hoped for when the 2017 expansion team took the city by storm, and the club has already made moves to set up a successful encore in 2018.
Attractive soccer coupled with sharp marketing and a city's desire for a winning sports team created a perfect storm that led to record-setting crowds and a real sense that the newest MLS team had connected with its home in a way that could lead to long-term success at the turnstiles.
The recent acquisition of Darlington Nagbe ties right into that aggressive approach to building a winner, with Atlanta landing one of the league's most dynamic players. Nagbe's arrival also carries some added significance in that it gives the team a U.S. international star, as well as a high-profile black player in a city with a large and vibrant African-American community.
Fans of all races fell in love with Atlanta United's playing style, but having an American who plays at a high level helps give black casual sports fans someone to identify and connect with in a way that wouldn't necessarily be the same for the large contingent of Latinos who made up the 2017 Atlanta squad.
To be clear, Atlanta United didn't go after Nagbe because of his race. The club wanted the 27-year-old because of his ability to wreak havoc on the field with his creativity and quality on the ball, as he joins an attack featuring recent MLS MVP candidates Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez. Atlanta has also been linked to a move for Argentine teenage sensation Ezequiel Barco.
"[Nagbe] is dynamic on the field, he compliments our other guys well, and he fits in with the player profile of the type of person we like to bring into the club," Atlanta United technical director Carlos Bocanegra told Goal. "He's got a dynamic ability to dribble out of trouble, skip past defenders and pull defenders out of position to free up a lot of other guys.
"For me, what I'm so excited about is the complement of players around him. It helps not only free up other guys, but makes him better and it's going to put other team's defenses under pressure."
Bocanegra admitted that he hadn't considered the potential significance of Nagbe being a black star in Atlanta, but it's something that will resonate in a way no previous Atlanta United signing has. In 2017, none of Atlanta's stars spoke much English, making marketing them to casual American sports fan difficult. Of course, having the likes of Almiron, Martinez and Hector Villalba pulling off incredible moves and plays on a consistent basis was its own form of marketing gold.
But now Nagbe comes to town with his million-dollar smile and bag of skills, a player who young Americans in Atlanta can look up to and young African-Americans can identify with.
That matters, especially in a league where black representation both on the field and in the coaching box is lacking. That isn't to say there aren't already black American stars in the league — Jozy Altidore just helped lead Toronto FC to an MLS Cup title — but the marketing of top black players in MLS can be better, as can the league's development of African-American players. That will hopefully continue to improve with the likes of Tyler Adams in New York, and now with Nagbe in Atlanta.
Nagbe will now find himself facing a different kind of pressure than he dealt with in Portland, and it will force him to come out of his shell. He has always been a bit of a guarded and shy figure publicly, but those who know him well have always gloated about his infectious personality and sense of humor.
Atlanta will give Nagbe an even bigger platform to show that off, along with his attacking talent, and as much as Portland was an excellent place for him to spend the first part of his career, the move to Atlanta United could be just what Nagbe needs to fully realize his considerable potential. Not only as an midfield maestro, but as a marketing sensation and a role model for the African-American soccer community in Atlanta and beyond.