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Slipping out of his comfort zone: Nagbe embracing fresh start with Atlanta United

19:20 GMT 23/02/2018
Darlington Nagbe Atlanta United MLS 02102018
After seven seasons in Portland, the U.S. national team midfielder has taken on a new role while joining an Atlanta side with lofty aspirations

New city. New team. New coach. New role. Such transformations are part of life for professional soccer players, but it is an entirely new experience for Darlington Nagbe.

When Caleb Porter made the surprising decision to step down as Portland Timbers coach in November after five seasons, it left Nagbe feeling as though it was time for a change. The 27-year-old had spent all seven seasons of his professional career with the Timbers, having been the first draft pick in the club's MLS history. Counting his three college seasons at Akron, Nagbe had spent eight of his past 10 years playing for Porter. With Porter gone, Nagbe decided he was ready for a fresh start.

"I think I’d still be (in Portland) if (Porter) was there," Nagbe told Goal. "It was a good relationship between player and coach. I was comfortable with Caleb and once he left I thought it was good for me to make a chance and experience a new environment. Not just for me, but for my family."

Nagbe couldn't have asked for a better change of scenery than joining Atlanta United, the exciting second-year team looking to build on an impressive expansion season. Gerardo "Tata" Martino's side set an MLS record when it traded away more than $1 million in allocation money to secure Nagbe's services, and Nagbe has felt right at home in his new team's attack-minded setup.

"It’s been fun, especially Tata. He preaches attack and not just to attack, but to play the proper way," Nagbe said. "It’s been fun getting to know these guys and play with these guys and the chemistry is getting there."

As for playing for the former Barcelona manager?

"Obviously I’ve been with Caleb since I was 17, so having a new coach there has to be more communication on my end knowing exactly what he wants, as opposed to being with Caleb, where I kind of knew what he wanted already from all the years I spent with him," Nagbe said. "(Martino) is real open to questions, and enjoys when players ask questions, so I’ve been doing a lot of that.

"Even though it’s nice to play for one coach for a long time, you have that chemistry, it’s good for you as a player to experience a new coach and new ideas and expectations from a different coach."

Nagbe has been thrust into a role different from the one he has filled with Portland in recent years. Atlanta is counting on him to solidify the central midfield, whether as a box-to-box midfielder or even as a deep-lying midfielder at times. The loss of defensive midfielder Carlos Carmona this winter has left a void in Atlanta's midfield that Nagbe can help fill with his ability to keep the ball and cover ground.

"Right now I'm playing as an 8, but obviously Tata is very detailed so it just depends where we are on the field and where the ball is," Nagbe said. "Sometimes I’ll drop into the 6 role, sometimes into the 8 role, and sometimes I’ll push up into the 10 role. So far he just wants me to play a little bit of all three. The longer I get to know him and get to play with him, I’ll get more comfortable in the system."

It hasn't taken long for Nagbe to impress his new teammates.

"He has really good technique," Atlanta defender Leandro Gonzalez Pirez said. "For us, it’s easy playing with him because when we have problems, we give the ball to him and he solves them."

"I don’t think I appreciated his talent enough, obviously only having played him once a year the past few years," Atlanta captain Michael Parkhurst told Goal. "He just does not lose the ball. It’s incredible. He’s just so good on the ball, so clean. He’s so quick in his first step that even if he takes a bad touch he can get away with it because of his quick burst. 

"He just gets you out of tough positions, both with his vision and individually," Parkhurst added. "He can just touch it by guys and all of a sudden breaks through and helps create space for other guys. It's just a great link between the back five and our front four. He’ll be asked to do a lot, and be on the ball a lot, and I think it’s a great fit for him.

"I don't think he's going to be relied on to score 10 goals a year. We know he's going to bring some offensive capabilities to our team, and help the team in that way, but more importantly he's going to be great in possession for us, and then breaking teams down and opening things up for the team."

It is a similar role to the one he played for the U.S. national team in the most recent World Cup qualifying cycle, which ended with the heartbreak of missing out on the 2018 tournament. Nagbe was in the lineup for the U.S. team's fateful loss to Trinidad & Tobago in October, and he didn't have much time to dwell on the crushing defeat before hopping back into Portland's playoff race.

"It will probably hit me when the World Cup starts," Nagbe said. "It's still surreal. It'll be strange to watch the World Cup without the U.S. being a part of it. I think once it starts, and you see the opening ceremony and all that stuff, I'll probably start thinking, 'Man, I could’ve been there.'"

The Trinidad & Tobago match remains a bit of a blur for Nagbe, who hasn't been back with the national team since.

"It was just a strange game, I don’t know how to explain it," Nagbe said. "Some crazy goals that happened. I think everything happens for a reason and hopefully we can learn from it and then become better. Hopefully whoever goes through qualifying for the next World Cup can learn from that and realize that these games aren't easy, and you have to show up as a team and perform."

As far as his national team future, Nagbe isn't spending much time thinking about it. He still wants to be a part of the team, and at age 27 he should be hitting his prime. But he isn't taking anything for granted.

"I'm realistic," Nagbe said. "I’ll be 32 at the next World Cup, which isn't too old, but there's young and up-and-coming guys coming into the field as well. Whatever way I can help is cool."

For now, Nagbe is focused on settling into his new home, and facing the challenges of a new team and new city. He had never been to Atlanta before the trade that sent him to United, but he has been impressed with his new home, and its diversity.

"That's one thing me and my wife talked about," Nagbe said. "With soccer not being one of the major sports in the States yet, it’s pretty cool that young African American kids get a chance and opportunity to see a guy for their hometown team that's the same color as them. Hopefully I can reach out to them and let them know they can be there one day, and they don't have to stick to certain sports, and they can try any sport, whether it's soccer or anything."

As much of a roller coaster ride as the past six months have been for Nagbe, he counts himself lucky. He and his wife are expecting their third child this year, and he is set for a fresh start professionally with a team that has taken the league by storm. After enjoying seven seasons playing in front of sold-out crowds at Providence Park in Portland, Nagbe will now look to win over another passionate fan base.

"As a player, what more can you want?" Nagbe said. "To go from Portland and that fan base to Atlanta and that fan base? A lot of teams don't have fan bases like that, and a lot of players don't get the chance to even play with one fan base like that, so to be able to play for two of them is special. I'm looking forward to it."