Ever since he was chosen with the second pick in the 2011 SuperDraft, Darlington Nagbe has been the great hope for the future of the Timbers. With his former coach, Caleb Porter, now at the helm, the hope has become expectation.
Certainly his number one status in our rankings is based in large part on our expectation of his 2013 season.
The first two years of Nagbe's professional career were marked by some uncertainty with regard to his best position. Having started out as a midfield wing, he spent a bit of time as a striker in 2011, before settling into a central midfielder role by the middle of the 2012 season.
During that time, he has shown moments of sheer brilliance, including the MLS Goal of the Year in 2011 and a contender for the same prize in 2012 (below). Beyond his impressive golazo portfolio, his passing ability and vision on the field have given fans plenty to like about him.
But opposing defenses figured out quickly in 2011 how to minimize the effect of his obvious talent. When he was given space to operate and consider his options, he made deft plays and created quality scoring opportunities. But when defenses denied him that space and time, he often proved too slow to make decisions, taking one or two touches too many or hesitating for just a bit to long, thus turning over the ball too easily.
It didn't help that Jeld Wen Field's dimensions further narrowed the space in which he had to work, nor that the team's weakness on the wings during the first half of 2012 allowed opposing defenses to collapse inward, cramping his space even more.
Yet Nagbe showed steady, incremental improvement in 2012. His defense improved. He improved his ability to keep possession of the ball under pressure. His confidence in his own abilities grew. And while a change in attacking personnel helped open up the middle of the pitch toward the end of the season, Nagbe also learned to make quicker decisions in tight spaces.
Most importantly, he learned how to make goal scoring look a bit more ho-hum, as opposed to spectacular.
During a four game stretch in August, Nagbe scored three goals (including the one featured above) and added an assist, giving fans a taste of what was to come. These weren't of the jaw-dropping variety -- they showcased the kind of quick thinking, timing, deception, and ball control that can make goal scoring a more routine occurrence, which is what the Timbers desperately need.
Of course, goal scoring did not become a more routine occurrence for him, or the team, after August. Nagbe still has a ways to go towards translating his immense skill into consistent performance.
Should he stay on in 2013?
Without question. Yes, he will likely cost the team more next year, assuming he graduates from Generation Adidas, but in our opinion, his potential alone is still worth the investment. As long as he stays healthy and figures out a way to keep his confidence, he will continue to improve his game. Under Caleb Porter's tutelage, a more possession-based attack, and a slightly wider field, we're confident that 2013 will be Nagbe's best yet.