Darlington Nagbe returned to training this week with Atlanta United. While match fitness may be a few weeks away, his availability comes at just the right time.
No one was quite sure how Atlanta United were going to use Darlington Nagbe when he first signed for the Five Stripes. There wasn’t really a need for another attacking midfielder and Nagbe’s form had tailed off in the previous years. The fit didn’t seem to make sense.
But Tata Martino had a plan for his new midfielder. Rather than field him in a more advanced position, he dropped him a little deeper, asked him to play with a little more caution and positional awareness, and turned him into a box-to-box bulldozer bursting full of athleticism, power and game-orientating control.
Nagbe was no longer an attack-minded player. He was now an all-around midfielder who was asked to do a little bit of everything. And he did it brilliantly.
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That was until June 24th. Atlanta were playing the Portland Timbers. Nagbe was making his 17th successive start of the season. But midway through the second half, he suffered a right adductor injury and has been resigned to the sidelines ever since. Such was the influence of Nagbe that Atlanta went out and signed Eric Remedi two days later. Martino knew his team would miss their ground-hurtling midfielder.
But now, nearly three months later, Nagbe is back in the fold. The 27-year-old returned to training this week and will be available for first-team selection in the coming weeks. There has been no official word on whether he will be ready to face the Colorado Rapids on Saturday, but, even if he isn’t, he is close.
From Atlanta’s perspective, there is no need to rush him back into the fray. Remedi and Jeff Larentowicz have been perfectly passable in his absence and can continue to be for another few weeks. That way, Atlanta ensures that Nagbe is completely ready when he is reintroduced to the starting line-up.
His return, then, actually comes at the perfect time. Atlanta’s trip to the New York Red Bulls in a little under three weeks’ time will likely determine the Supporters’ Shield victors. That should be time enough for Nagbe to prepare. The rest of their remaining slate is also manageable — only one other team is above the playoff line with four of the seven fixtures against relatively easy opposition.
If Nagbe plays in just one or two matches between now and the end of the regular season and ensures that he is in tip-top condition for the playoffs, then Atlanta will be overjoyed. If he is ready for the playoffs and the postseason push, then Atlanta becomes perhaps the heavy favourite for the MLS Cup. His impact is that massive. And Nagbe now has time to ensure that he is indeed ready.
This, then, could not have worked out better for Atlanta. They get one of their best and most influential players back without having missed him too badly and can ready him for the most important time of the season, all without having to rush. The rich do indeed get richer.