Darlington Nagbe has come to embody the fortunes of the Portland Timbers in what has been a difficult second year for both parties. So much hope and expectation was placed upon them coming into 2012, and both have frustrated and disappointed while still showing the occasional flash of brilliance that only serve to make the lows seem ever bleaker by comparison.
Nagbe came out of a successful University of Akron side in to the 2011 MLS SuperDraft. The Zips have been one of college soccer’s finest conveyor belts for young talent with Steve Zakuani, Ben Zemanski, Perry Kitchen and Teal Bunbury also coming through there.
He was given the Hermann Trophy, an award for the country’s top college talent, after guiding the Zips to a national championship and had, it seemed, the world, or at least the US soccer portion of it, at his feet.
Prior to the SuperDraft there were many pundits who tipped Nagbe to go first and Sports Illustrated praised his “strong presence on the ball, ability to go at and get by defenders and typically smooth finishing touch”. He would eventually be drafted second, as Portland’s first pick, and hit the ground running with 21 starts in his debut season.
The highlight of that first year was probably his wondergoal against Sporting Kansas City.
Any fears of a sophomore slump from Nagbe seemed unfounded as he started the year in sparkling form, coming off the bench against Dallas to score an equaliser in the second match of the season. He followed that up with two goals against Real Salt Lake a couple of weeks later.
Such was his early season form that there was speculation over just how Nagbe would choose to represent on the international stage, with the player himself seemingly rebuffing the advances of Liberia, the country of his birth.
However, since those heady first few weeks Nagbe’s form has been on a slow, steady decline. It’s not that he’s playing poorly, as such, but that he’s certainly not improving either.
Comparing his first goal against Real Salt Lake earlier this year with a passage of play in the similar area against Colorado Rapids highlights the difference between the Nagbe that started the year on fire and the player who’s currently filling the Timbers #6 jersey.
It’s been noticeable, to me at least, that the drive has gone from Nagbe’s game. The team as a whole has struggled, and it’s tough for a 22 year old, 2nd year pro to flourish under those circumstances, but nevertheless it’s been disappointing to see Nagbe fail to progress as I’d hoped he would this year.
Even ex-head coach John Spencer seemed to tire of the talk surrounding Nagbe, and a few of the players.
I’m sick and tired of hearing the word potential. For me, potential gets you your contract, gets you on the field, then you’ve got to produce. We’ve got too many guys right now not producing to the best of their abilities.
Spencer’s comments came after the 1-0 defeat to LA Galaxy, the first match after the defeat Cal FC, so a time when the team were really struggling to put together anything positive. This was also a period when Nagbe began to be used more deeply.
Nagbe’s found himself in a number of positions this year. He’s played as a striker, a wide attacker, at the point of the midfield diamond, tucked in behind the strikers, and also in a more traditional midfield role at times. How he’s expected to get any consistency in his play when there’s seemingly little consistency in where he plays is a mystery.
It’s interesting that the Timbers signed Danny Mwanga this year. Mwanga was a player who took the MLS by storm in his debut season at Philadelphia, before struggling to find a defined role in his second year which saw his form slump. The parallels between Mwanga and Nagbe are striking, though at least Nagbe has remained a fixture in the Timbers’ starting XI.
You can see how Nagbe has been utilised in these heat maps of his appearances this season. Note, the 1-0 defeat to New England and the 2-1 victory against San Jose are missing as the chalkboards for these games are borked.
In that first half of his season, Nagbe had almost as any many shots on target (10) as he’s had shots in total in the second half (13). Given his deeper role, it’s understandable that he’s getting fewer shots off. What’s worrying is his accuracy plummeted too. In that first half he got 47.6% of his target shots on target (10/21), but since then he’s had a single shot on target, or 7.7% accuracy.
To be fair to Nagbe, he’s still every bit as involved in the play as he’s ever been. He’s not hiding out there. He’s making passes around every 140 seconds or so, a figure that’s been consistent across the year, and his accuracy has hovered around 86%, with four matches seeing it over 90%. The problem is that he’s doing it further from goal, and there are a lot more backwards and sideways passes, which gives the perception that’s he’s being less effective.
I’ve wondered a few times what Nagbe’s best position is. I still feel he lacks a bit of the robustness to play up top. Even Kris Boyd, a bigger and more seasoned players, used to the “blood and snotters” nature of football in Scotland and England, has seemed to find the physicality of MLS defences tough to come to terms with at times.
I also feel he’s not as well utilised out wide, and Songo’o and Alhassan are arguably better choices there in any case. In his attacking midfield role, I just feel he hasn’t been the attacking fulcrum the position demands. He hasn’t seemed fully comfortable playing there, and has been playing much more conservatively as a result.
Part of the reasoning behind the “Christmas Tree” formation I proposed a couple of days ago was to try and get the best from Nagbe. Playing as the sole player in the centre between midfield and attack heaps too much responsibility on his shoulders. Having three players tucked in behind him would, I’d hope, give him the freedom to try something now and then, rather than playing the safe percentage game.
I’m all for keeping possession, but when you transition into that final third, you need guys who can provide that spark of something special, not simply laying it off for others for fear of being the guy who loses the ball.
There’s no doubt that Darlington Nagbe is a good player, with the potential to be very good. Failure to get the best of Nagbe doesn’t bode well for the club’s hopes of bringing through other young talents and developing them into players who can fire Portland to glory.