There was a moment early in the second half of Sunday’s Timbers-Sounders match when Darlington Nagbe faced up fellow Akron product DeAndre Yedlin on the fringe of the Sounders’ box. The matchup had been a continuing font of frustration for Nagbe over the course of the afternoon. Yedlin had harassed Nagbe up and down the field, even tracking back on his probing runs in time to reject Nagbe’s one-on-one attempts. Most of them were futile.
This particular matchup about 10 minutes into the half was Yedlin’s biggest triumph. Nagbe went to his most familiar ally, the right-footed chop to his left that he pairs with a vicious hip shimmy. As soon as Nagbe cut down on the ball, you see immediately that it lacked its typical venom – it’s almost lethargic – and Yedlin, hardly the best heads-up defender in the league, is on top of the move instantly. Yedlin stretches out his right and megs Nagbe on his own fake, punching the ball out of the box and away from danger. Nagbe, beaten completely, wraps both arms around Yedlin and drags him to the ground to draw a deserved foul. It’s over in four seconds.
This is hardly the Nagbe we’re used to seeing, but it’s the Nagbe that’s been on display for long stretches of 2014 with only occasional interruptions. At this time last year, Nagbe had seven goals and three assists. After being subbed off of Sunday’s 4-2 loss to Seattle at home, Nagbe is sitting on just four assists.
What’s happened to Darlington Nagbe?
To understand what Nagbe isn’t doing, we have to know what he does well. The 2013 season provides reams of evidence, and we’ll dig back into last year in a moment. For now, we’ll take the magnifying glass to the things he’s done well this year in contrast to the noisy, overly complicated system of play he’s often utilized.
Let’s take a look at each of Nagbe’s assists this year. There isn’t much to see, but each are instructive.
Here’s his first of the season, a beautifully nuanced effort to set up Will Johnson against Chivas USA in April. Notice his positioning. Central. This is very Nagbe.
Next, Nagbe alights a three-touch sequence that ends with Adi bagging one. Again, notice Nagbe’s position. Shaded left but tucked inside Jorge Villafana, who is tasked with doing the wide grunt work. Nagbe’s free.
Third up, Nagbe’s steel starts a bang-bang movement that leads to the quickest goal in franchise history against D.C. United in May. Track this: Nagbe does all this on the right.
Nagbe rang up his final assist (thus far) last month against Montreal. Look familiar? We’ve seen this already. That first Chivas USA assist should immediately come to mind.
An immediate conclusion we can make is that even four assists is generous. He’s only directly assisted on two this year – in the other two, he was simply one cog back in the machine, albeit an important one. It bears repeating that both of his direct assists were from nearly the same spot on the field and through an identical pass to two different players. Both were in the left-central channel and featured Nagbe moving inside. Keep this in mind.
Let’s travel back to last season, when Nagbe finished a career year with nine goals and four assists. This is a typical Nagbe passing matrix from 2013. He’s essentially a ghost, traveling through any door the game opened. This in particular is Nagbe’s map from the Timbers’ 3-2 win over Seattle in last year’s playoffs on Nov. 8. Notice the even distribution of his movement. And, in fact, he spent more time on the right.
Our second example comes from Sunday’s loss. Both of these games were at Providence Park. Both were against the Sounders less than a year apart. But his movement here is considerably more isolated.
Those two cross-field switches are important. In lieu of carrying possession across the field (or simply residing there in the first place), Nagbe dumped it off and stayed put. He never completed a pass in an area of the field (and in an identical fixture) where he completed 20 last year.
Were this a matchup issue, it’d be a strange one. Instead of simply picking on Marc Burch on his right last November, Nagbe shaded in both directions, including to the more heavily fortified flank manned by both Yedlin and Brad Evans. He had a lot of success doing this, in effect keeping Seattle woefully off balance. On Sunday, Nagbe spent almost no time at all testing the clumsier Leo Gonzalez and stubbornly went heads up on a much improved Yedlin. It yielded him little, aside from a few toothless shots and some meager one-on-ones.
As for his goal-scoring, the trouble is in a similar space. Look where he is positionally in the moments before he scored this goal against D.C. United last season. Center cut. It’s poor defending, but Nagbe’s presence as a ghost floating wherever the action takes him allows him to split the middle with minimal opposition. This level of measured confusion has always been part of Nagbe’s game. He’s providing defenders with less of it.
Nagbe is moving less. That’s the crux of the issue. The reason his dip in form is so puzzling on its face is that Nagbe is largely doing the same thing he’s always done on the left – he pinches in, makes his home in that left-leaning central channel and attempts to play quick exchanges with his central midfielders and strikers.
The problem is that Nagbe isn’t doing this anywhere else right now. He isn’t dragging defenders on top of one another by pulling across the line to his right. His one-on-one moves aren’t biting as much as they were last year. And he’s largely become predictable due in no small part to his general lack of motor.
Part of this ultimately drills into what you see rather than the statistics you read. Nagbe just doesn’t look right. He isn’t beating defenders with his typical verve, isn’t finding his way into as many dangerous spaces and doesn’t seem generally as interested. While this is Nagbe’s fourth year in MLS, it’s his second as a bonafide league star. That opens the possibility that this falls into the sophomore swoon category that nips at so many.
There’s little question that on his day, Nagbe is among the league’s best players, but his importance to MLS drills deep. He’s on the vanguard of MLS’ move toward a more technician-heavy league, and the high-visibility genius he often injects into games is a face the league will be happy to front. More importantly, Nagbe is just a joy to watch, and having him play a more active role in games is good for neutral observers everywhere.
One thing’s certain. Whether or not he refits the wheels onto the track is probably the difference between Portland making the playoffs and staying at home.