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From the Stump: Busting the Nagbe Myth

It’s time to revisit the convention wisdom on Darlington Nagbe’s 2014 campaign.

Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

Myth: Darlington Nagbe had a poor season in 2014.

A common refrain among many Portland Timbers fans this offseason has been that to be successful the Timbers need Nagbe to return to his 2013 form.

In one respect, this is understandable. One goal in a season isn’t a great look, especially when juxtaposed against nine the year before. That Nagbe had the goalscoring yips in 2014 is undeniable – a fact that Caleb Porter has readily acknowledged.

"You look at athletes over the course of their professional years and they’re all going to have years that are outliers," Porter said after practice last Saturday. "So I thought for him that was maybe kind of an outlier year in terms of production and the way the goals fell." As for why Nagbe struggled in front of goal, Porter suggested it was a mix of a mental block, on-field effects of starting a family, and a bit of bad luck.

But ultimately Porter held true to an old refrain from the 2014 season about Nagbe: "I said this a lot – I don’t think he played any worse. In fact a lot of times I thought he played even better."

Indeed, Nagbe’s seven assists in 2014 were a career high and a respectable second on the team. For all his goalscoring foibles, Nagbe still showed plenty of capacity to make things happen in the final third.

But even that doesn’t get to the heart of Nagbe’s value and, ultimately, why the notion that Nagbe had a poor year in 2014 is a myth.

While Nagbe is a good playmaker, where he truly excels is deeper in the midfield – in the transitional phase of the game between defense and attack and in the early buildup.  Near the conclusion of his lengthy discussion of Nagbe, after discussing Darlington’s goalscoring troubles and noting his uptick in assists, Porter reached this conclusion:

He’s always one of our best players in terms of holding the ball, and possession, and – even though he doesn’t always play final balls or get assists or score – he draws numbers to him.  He creates attention.  And, who knows, maybe Valeri again doing well had something to do with the fact that Darlington still, every single game, is going to be a guy people are aware of and concerned about.

But while there are many traditional statistics that measure final-third prowess, there aren’t any that provide a standalone measure of a player’s success in transition despite the undeniable importance of that phase of the game. If a team isn’t successful in transition, it won’t be able to sufficiently keep the ball, eliminate defenders, and open up the spaces in which playmakers and goalscorers ply their craft.

Think the U.S. National Team in the World Cup.

Fortunately, however, advanced statistics can help us gauge what a player provides in this important phase of the game. Advanced statistical categories like successful dribbles, duels-won, and duel success rate, as well as the more traditional fouls-suffered, all provide indicators of how effective a player is at eliminating opponents from play and keeping the ball while transitioning into attack.

Nagbe, it turns out, is elite in each of these respects.

In 2014, Nagbe's 89 successful dribbles ranked second in MLS, and his 58.55% dribble-success rate was higher than any player with more than 42 successful dribbles. Nagbe was one of the best, if not the best, in MLS at keeping the ball and moving it into the attack.

With respect to duels won, Nagbe was unmatched. Nagbe’s 244 duels won led MLS, and his 62.24% duel-success rate was tops among non-defenders with 50 or more duels-won. And it’s not that Nagbe is doing this defensively – as a winger he hardly registers in defensive statistics like tackles-won and recoveries. Instead, Nagbe is doing this in possession – taking on opponents in bunches and winning at an unmatched rate.

Finally, as a byproduct of the above, Nagbe’s 93 fouls-won were second in MLS and 16 fouls clear of third place. Simply put, after Nagbe gains possession he takes defenders on, beats them, and leaves them at best only one option – bring him down.

The picture these statistics paint is as simple as it is beautiful for Timbers fans: In 2014, Darlington Nagbe was the most effective transition and early-buildup player in MLS.

The value in this for the Timbers is immense. The Timbers roster is loaded with players who can make plays in the final third. From Diego Valeri to Fanendo Adi to Rodney Wallace to Maxi Urruti to Gaston Fernandez, there is no shortage of playmaking or goalscoring on the roster. And while the Timbers would certainly like – and can probably expect – a few more deliverables from Nagbe in 2015, the Timbers attack still scored the third most goals in MLS in 2014 even with Darlington only chipping in one of his own. For all his goalscoring foibles, it’s worth noting that Nagbe only logged one big-chance missed. While this certainly doesn’t capture the full extent of Nagbe’s finishing troubles, it demonstrates he wasn’t squandering golden opportunities left-and-right.

To the contrary, Nagbe was a big reason why the Timbers offense reached new heights in an otherwise disappointing season. Although his work often doesn’t show up in the box score and is frequently cropped out of the highlights, Nagbe’s elite transition play sets his teammates up for glory by carrying the ball into the attack and giving the Timbers’ playmakers and goalscorers the space they need to excel.  In short, Nagbe had a vital hand in generating many, many more opportunities than he let go begging.

Any assessment of Nagbe’s season in 2014 without recognizing this primary function that he serves for the team is fatally incomplete. Putting too much emphasis on Nagbe’s goalscoring in 2014 – or lack thereof – misses the point by fixating on a relative weakness that the team largely compensates for while neglecting Nagbe’s elite play in another important phase of the game.  And it turns out Nagbe’s elite transitional play is one of the primary reasons why Nagbe's teammates were able to compensate for his tepid goalscoring.

Ultimately, this is why Porter summed up his feelings about Nagbe simply on Saturday by pronouncing Darlington "still one of the best players in the league."

In other words, myth busted.