The Portland Timbers encounter their second major change of the offseason, while Atlanta United continues to stockpile talent after a successful expansion year.
A new era has begun in Pacific Northwest, while on the other side of the country, Atlanta United already appears determined to build on an inaugural year of unprecedented ambition.
In the biggest trade of this nascent MLS offseason, the Portland Timbers on Wednesday afternoon sent the club’s first MLS draft pick, U.S. national team midfielder Darlington Nagbe, to Atlanta in exchange for at least $1.05 million allocation funding. That figure could rise as high as $1.65 million if Nagbe, 27, or United meet certain incentive criteria in 2018. Timbers defender Gbenga Arokoyo also was included in the deal.
Nagbe joins a formidable Atlanta midfield anchored by MLS Best XI playmaker Miguel Almirón, Argentine Designated Player Héctor Villalba and MLS Rookie of the Year Julian Gressel. Speculation that Argentine attacker Yamil Asad could be on his way out has coincided with rumors that United coach Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino might be on the verge of luring 18-year-old Independiente attacker Ezequiel Barco to Georgia. Barco, who’s represented Argentina at the U-20 level, would be another milestone signing for a club that continues to break the mold.
United already has added two South American defenders this month—Argentine Franco Escobar and Venezuelan José Hernández. It finished its inaugural campaign fourth in the Eastern Conference at 15-9-10, setting a league attendance record along the way, and it’s +30 goal differential was the second-best in MLS. But Atlanta fell in the knockout round of the MLS Cup playoffs, losing to the Columbus Crew on penalties.
“Darlington was our top target in the league this offseason, and we’re ecstatic to welcome him to our club,” Atlanta technical director Carlos Bocanegra said. “He is a perfect fit for our style of play, as he has a dynamic ability to dribble out of trouble, maintain possession and make passes that bring additional players into the game.”
The expectations and goals detailed by Bocanegra are key. Nagbe isn’t a player who will compile eye-opening offensive statistics and take charge in the attacking third, nor is he the sort who always leaves an obvious, 90-minute imprint on a match. Rather, he’s a connector and a facilitator—someone who makes his teammates better while possessing enough skill to give defenders pause. His impact with the national team has been uneven, but he’s done enough to help the Timbers to an MLS Cup championship and two first-place finishes in the Western Conference since he and the club entered the league in 2011.
Nagbe tallied 30 goals in 236 appearances with Portland. And he has one goal in 24 games with the USA.
“Darlington has grown with this team from its beginnings in the league and has been a great player and representative in his seven years with the Timbers,” Portland GM Gavin Wilkinson said. “I want to sincerely thank Darlington for everything he has given this club and for helping Portland win its first MLS Cup in 2015. He will always be a part of the Timbers family.”
Nagbe’s departure, along with the dollars coming from Atlanta, represents an opportunity for Portland to reshape a portion of its roster as it closes in on hiring former New York Cosmos coach Giovanni Savarese. The highly-regarded Savarese won three NASL titles in New York and appears to be the choice to succeed Caleb Porter, who left the Timbers last month. ESPN reported the Timbers’ interest in Savarese on Tuesday, and the Cosmos announced his departure Wednesday.