In the 23rd minute in Columbus two weeks ago, Diego Chara got the ball in the short-handed Portland Timbers' half and picked up his head, looking for a pass. He passed to Darlington Nagbe at the center line before making a quick run through the Columbus Crew's midfield line, looking for a return pass.
What he saw instead was Crew midfielder Aaron Schoenfeld clotheslining Nagbe to the ground. Referee Jorge Gonzalez walked over and pointed to four different spots on the pitch before showing Schoenfeld the yellow card.
Amazingly, those four spots accounted for just two thirds of the fouls Nagbe would suffer during the course of the match.
After just 20 matches in 2013, Nagbe is only two fouls shy of the 46 he suffered in all of 2012. Sixteen of those 44 fouls, or 36.4%, have come in just the last four matches. While he had averaged 1.75 fouls per match over the first sixteen matches of 2013, his last four matches have featured an average of four fouls each, rocketing him to the third highest total in MLS.
And while it's common for players with high fouls-suffered numbers to also have high fouls-committed totals, Nagbe has been called for just six fouls all season. His 7.33 fouls suffered per foul committed is by far the highest among outfield players who have played at least half of their teams' total minutes.
So, is Nagbe actually getting fouled more or are the officials just calling more of them?
"I’ve noticed I’m getting kicked more," says Nagbe. "Sometimes the calls are there, sometimes they’re not, but I just notice I’m getting kicked more."
"He's just being more aggressive," says team Captain Will Johnson. "Because he's such a danger, such a threat. When he gets in and around the box we want him to be able to be creative, to be free, and do whatever he does."
One such example came in the 27th minute against the LA Galaxy, when Nagbe intercepted a pass from Robbie Rogers about 30 yards away from goal. Desperate to recover the ball, Rogers stepped up to challenge Nagbe, who turned the ball quickly to the left and was subsequently cut down by Rogers' last-ditch slide. (The resulting free kick set up Ryan Johnson's equalizer.)
"If that's leading to more fouls, then, you know, that's an interesting statistic," says Johnson. "But he's still growing into the player that he's going to be, and it's fun to watch."
Like his teammates, opposing sides have clearly found they must respect how much of a danger and a threat he is.
"It’s annoying," Nagbe joked after Monday's training session. "I’d rather not have that respect – I’d rather not get kicked."
It's an understandable sentiment, to be sure -- particularly as the tactic appears to be working.
Ignoring for the moment the caveat of a small sample size, the rise in Nagbe's foul rate over the past four games has corresponded with an inversely proportional decrease in his shots and shots on target per match. While he had been used to contributing two shots, one on target per match, he has averaged just one shot and 0.5 on target over his past four.
And indeed, the Timbers haven't scored a goal from the run of play in MLS competition since their 3-0 win over the Colorado Rapids one month ago (although it should be noted that this drought also corresponds with Rodney Wallace's most recent absence from the lineup).
Asked about what he can do to avoid getting kicked, Nagbe's answer is simple:
Many thanks to William Conwell, who contributed significantly to this report.