Late in the Portland Timbers' match at Toronto FC, Darlington Nagbe, playing on the right wing in place of subbed-out Sal Zizzo, saw the chance to do something he hadn't done in five months. He snuck in behind the Toronto defense and got himself on the end of a perfectly chipped cross from Steven Smith.
That goal against Toronto was the first crack in the dam, and the water has hence rushed forth. Since the Timbers' draw against the hapless Reds, Nagbe has doubled his season scoring total, scoring three goals in three games.
What is perhaps more telling than the goals, though, is that Nagbe has since recorded his first assist of the season, setting up Zizzo's cross to Dike for the winner against the Colorado Rapids.
I say "telling" because at least part of the reason for setting Nagbe up in the center of the pitch in the first place was so he could use his vision and ball skills to set up Kris Boyd.
In theory, with the Fox in the box, Nagbe should have been racking up assists like it was a bodily function. And with Boyd commanding the attention of opposing defenses, Nagbe should have had loads of space to set up his own goals.
Instead, he went goalless and assistless.
Now, I don't want to say that Boyd was the problem, because he wasn't. The problem was the level of attention Boyd received. Please bear with me as I digress for a moment.
Kris Boyd, like Jack Black, is at his best when he's a supporting cast member, like in High Fidelity and Orange County. He was good in those movies because he was allowed to hang around -- no personal back story or subplot to speak of -- and just play off the other characters to score laughs. And those were great movies as a result. But when you try to make a movie with Black as the lead -- like Shallow Hal or Nacho Libre -- there might be a couple of funny moments here and there, but mostly they're just exhausting to watch. And worst of all, none of the other characters end up getting many laughs at all.
Similarly, Boyd should have been used as the poacher up front who could pick up the pieces left by the guys behind him and put the ball in the back of the net. Instead, the team -- and fans, bloggers, commenters, etc -- focused their full attention on getting the ball to Boyd.
John Spencer and Gavin Wilkinson paired him with one striker after another -- Jorge Perlaza, Danny Mwanga, Mike Fucito, and Brent Richards -- in a vain effort to find the right guy to make him score. The team's formation was locked in a 4-4-2 to suit Boyd's style. And as I wrote back in June, five different combinations of seven players were used in the two wing positions in the starting lineup -- all of them auditioning for the role of "guy who passes the ball to Boyd."
Tactically, it drew the wings inward from the flanks as they sought the opportunities to put exactly the right kind of ball -- on the ground, to his feet -- into the box for Boyd. That, in turn, put immense stress on the Timbers' fullbacks.
Most frustratingly, it squeezed the middle of the pitch. Darlington Nagbe, and the team as a whole, suffered as a result.
At some point, roughly coinciding with John Spencer's ouster, the coaching staff finally realized the futility of their attempts to build an attack around Kris Boyd. Instead (and this is purely speculative), with the ever-increasing likelihood by the beginning of August that Caleb Porter would become the Timbers' next Head Coach, Wilkinson & Co made Nagbe the focal point of the Timbers' attack.
Indeed, since the 5-0 drubbing in Dallas, the formation and the strategy have abandoned Boyd in favor of supporting Darlington Nagbe. A consistent 4-5-1 was implemented to stretch the midfield wider. Franck Songo'o and Sal Zizzo became permanent fixtures in the lineup. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Bright Dike replaced Boyd as the lone striker.
Inserting Dike, more effective with his head than Boyd, has made Zizzo and Songo'o more dangerous on aerial crosses from the wings. The increased attention Zizzo and Songo'o can now attract allows for more fluid movement through the middle of the pitch. Improved fluidity has created more space for Nagbe to orchestrate the attack, and provided him more opportunities to make those signature diagonal runs.
Nagbe has embraced his stardom and responded with his best run of form as a professional. Even if he is too modest to see it that way. "I just feel like everyone is playing better, not just me," he said of his teammates after the win against Vancouver.
Whatever, Darlington. You're awesome. Jack Jewsbury, back me up on this.
"Obviously, Darlington getting a couple of goals and getting some confidence going forward has been huge for us," said the captain after a training session last week. "I think the past few weeks guys have settled in their roles and know exactly what is expected of them, game in, game out, and have made the most of it."
Meanwhile, yes, Kris Boyd has lost his starring role with the team. That's not to say he definitely won't stick around, although it would certainly surprise no-one if he left at the end of the season. But if he does remain with the team next year, it will be surely be in a role supporting Darlington Nagbe.
To me, this is unquestionably a good thing. As Darlington Nagbe goes, so go the Timbers -- and with Caleb Porter at the helm, I have a feeling Darlington Nagbe's gonna go places.