Darlington Nagbe's rookie season with the Portland Timbers was one of big ups and downs. His highlights included his goal of the year against Sporting Kansas City, his romantic proposal to his fiancee at Portland's highest point, and his triumphant emergence as a striker late in the season. And he saw more time on the first team than most rookies do, even those with his level of talent.
Indeed, there is no denying his talent, and his coaches are perfectly aware of it.
"He’s by far technically the best player we’ve got," Coach John Spencer said in January. "It’s just plain and simple. He’s the most natural soccer player. Up there natural soccer wise with the Landon Donovans and Brad Davises of this world."
He did have low points, too, though they were perhaps somewhat less visible than those of certain teammates, like, say, Kenny Cooper. One was certainly starting the season on the bench while recovering from a preseason surgery. Another was losing his starting spot due to fatigue at about the season's midpoint.
After the jump, some of my favorite Nagbe moments of 2011, and the Stumptown Footy editors chime in on where they think Nagbe should play. Also, a poll!
Nagbe has also frustrated fans with some recurring weaknesses on the field. His quality seemed to drop off after playing more than three or four consecutive matches last year. And then there's that split second of hesitation he has a tendency to take before shooting. Too often he wanted to take too perfect a shot, instead of decisively taking his opportunities as they came. In the end, for all his accolades, he scored just two goals and three assists in 25 appearances on the season. Not exactly stellar numbers.
To fans, the highs overshadow the lows, because of the skill he shows on the ball and the calmness with which he goes about his business on the pitch. His supporters, myself among them, point out that his quality extends far beyond the numbers he produces himself, as his presence on the field improves the play of his teammates. When Nagbe is on the pitch, the team tends to pass much more and with better accuracy, and that corresponds with maintaining more possession creating more scoring chances.
To me, his finest moment of 2011 was not his wonder goal on July 2, nor the goal he orchestrated for Mike Chabala during their rout of the Galaxy. For me it was actually a reserve match. Relegated to the reserve squad in August, Nagbe knew he had use the opportunity to show the coaching staff that striker was his natural position.
"Reserve teams give you a chance to get out there and get your confidence up, and take that confidence to the first team games," Nagbe said at the time.
Confidence is right.
Against the LA Galaxy Reserves he scored two goals and assisted Bright Dike on a third in a match in which he and his teammates combined for 23 shots. The impressive offensive display was enough to convince himself, as well as the coaching staff, that he was not just a striker, but a starting striker.
Two weeks later he thanked his coaches for awarding him a starting striker role, tallying five shots on the match and scoring with a header on a cross from Kalif Alhassan. He added an assist in the next match, against the San Jose Earthquakes.
He started in the striker position for the next three matches as well, as Jorge Perlaza nursed some nagging injuries. But his production waned as fatigue set in again, and he finished the season on the bench after taking a knock during the Houston match.
The main challenge for Nagbe in 2012 will be to keep his energy up for the long haul of the MLS season. The ankle strain he suffered shortly after the team's arrival at training camp in Carson, California, has been a hindrance to that goal so far. We hope the 45 minutes he put in against Houston on Sunday has helped him get back on track.
Beyond that, it's the simple task of convincing his coaches that he deserves a spot in the starting lineup -- specifically, the spot next to Kris Boyd.
"It's up to him to really take the reigns and say, 'you know I want to play as a striker,'" John Spencer said of Nagbe last month.
"You only get into that position by getting goals," said Spencer. "Yes you're young and the potential is there, but you've got to produce."
Unfortunately for Nagbe, even if he succeeds in convincing his coaches that he is a striker, he may still start the season waiting quite literally in the wings.
So the question is: would you rather have his talent on the field in a position other than striker (presumably as a winger), or would you prefer he enter the match as a second half substitute for Perlaza, partnering with either Boyd or Bright Dike? Or something else entirely? The editors have their say.
Between Jorge Perlaza, Kris Boyd and Darlington Nagbe, I honestly wouldn't be too surprised if Spenny tried out a 4-3-3 formation with Nagbe playing on the right side up top. If everything that we hear is true about Boyd then he's going to need a great point-man and I think Nagbe is a better precision striker than Perlaza. However, if it maintains a 4-4-2 or some variation of, I'd like Nagbe to maintain is role as a right winger because, again, his precision is needed in that area.
Darlington Nagbe could be our Cristiano Ronaldo from his Manchester United days. He would be a playmaker on the wings where he wouldn't have to go toe to toe against the physical center backs and would have more space to run at defenders. He would also provide a great cross to Boyd and the ability to thread the pass to Perlaza. The only thing holding him back from becoming a monster on the wings is the killer instinct and desire to take over the game. If he can assert himself more on the outside and take on the Ronaldo role Boyd will score more goals, Perlaza will too and the whole offense will have an added dimension that is just hard to defend.
In a 4-4-2, with Kris Boyd as one of the strikers, Darlington Nagbe needs to play on the wing. Nagbe up top would be a wonderful thing, but his skill set is not what we need paired up with Boyd. To flourish Boyd needs someone who can stretch the defense and create space for him so that he can take the quick touch and shot, at which he excels. While Nagbe is capable of doing this, it is not his style nor temperament to do so. A constant runner like Jorge Perlaza will create the spaces that the Timbers offense will need to thrive.
Of course, Nagbe is too valuable to be left on the bench, so it is lucky that Nagbe's ability to hold the ball up and either beat his man or find the proper pass are exactly what the Timbers will need to bring Boyd into the game. Not particularly feared in the air, Boyd will thrive with the ball played in to his feet, and if anyone can do that from the wing it is Nagbe.
Spencer should put the best XI possible out for every match, and as Nagbe is one of those eleven, he needs to play. If that means Nagbe plays in the midfield for the time being, then that's just the way it has to be. But even if he starts the season in the midfield, he won't be locked in that role for the whole season. Spencer has the depth to play the strengths of his individual players against the weaknesses of other teams, and that means Nagbe should see plenty of minutes up top -- perhaps as early as March 24 against New England.