The Seattle Sounders are dangerous.
How dangerous? 65 goals in 2014 dangerous. Second-best-in-MLS dangerous, that is.
Also, 12-4-1 at home dangerous, including 11-2-1 after the month of March.
What was peculiar about the Sounders’ 2014 campaign, however, is that only 31 of Seattle’s 65 goals came at CenturyLink Field. But stunningly, a Seattle defense that conceded an only-better-than-Colorado 34 goals away from home allowed only 16 in Seattle.
Why? The Sounders are the best counterattacking team in MLS, and visitors to CenturyLink Field were so certain that Seattle would beat them on the counter if the away side committed any numbers to the attack that instead they chose to sit back and make sure they don’t allow spaces in behind.
This also explains why Seattle scored a league-best-by-a-mile 34 goals outside the Emerald City in 2014. Playing at home, Sounders’ opponents would feel like they have to attack. And then Seattle would counter to devastating effect.
So the Portland Timbers will commit numbers on Sunday at their peril. Which means, as a practical matter, that the Timbers are probably going to have to create offense without much help from their fullbacks and defensive midfielders, and are likely to face a lot of situations where they have numerical disadvantages in the attack.
For some teams, this is a death sentence. If they can’t get numbers forward, they can’t create space and, therefore, can’t generate chances.
The Timbers, however, aren’t really one of those teams. In fact, without Will Johnson and Diego Valeri, for much of 2015 the Timbers have been generating offense with only four or, at times, five men committed to the attack. It hasn’t always been prolific (the Timbers’ 7 goals-for are firmly in the MLS peloton), but it’s been enough to keep Portland in games and scratching out at least subsistence results.
And the reason the Timbers have been able to attack this way is pretty much singular: Darlington Nagbe.
On some level, numbers are everything in the attack. Simply put, numbers equal space because numbers force reactions from defenders and allow others to step into any void. And, in the end, space equals chances.
Unless a team can find a way to create numbers across the field, they need to find a way to create numbers in pockets to allow for the space to create a good scoring chance. The latter is exactly what Darlington Nagbe does for the Timbers, something that was on display frequently in the second half against NYCFC.
We start with a sequence in the 51st minute in which Nagbe picks the ball up in a soft spot between the levels of NYCFC’s diamond midfield. Just off screen the meat of the NYCFC backline is ready and waiting for any Timbers runners that should arrive. This is clearly a circumstance in which the Timbers would like to go at NYCFC’s backline, but Portland doesn’t exactly have the numbers queued up to overwhelm NYCFC.
Now we see a little bit better view of the attacking landscape, and even with Chris Wingert stepping up from central defense to provide another body on Nagbe, the Citizens are more or less in fine shape. Javier Calle is tracking Dairon Asprilla, Jeb Brovsky has his eye on Ishmael Yartey, and Kwame Watson-Siriboe is more or less accounting for Adi in the space Wingert has vacated.
But Nagbe’s not done, and it’s going to take more than just Wingert to get the ball off the Timbers playmaker’s foot. Calle is the next to take a stab at dispossessing Nagbe, but despite Calle's more aggressive effort at winning the ball, he has little more success than those who have gone before him.
The point where Nagbe finally passes, however, is the first time that we really see his immense value in creating a numerical advantage where there otherwise was none. With Asprilla floating away from Wingert and Nagbe occupying four defenders, the Timbers effectively have a three-on-two in the box with a handsome soft spot at the top of the area. In addition to Nagbe bending NYCFC out of shape, that soft spot is created by a subtle piece of striker work by Fanendo Adi, who is pressing the remnants of the NYCFC backline deeper to help open up the top of the box.
Nagbe’s pass here, however, missed Asprilla (who seemed likeliest to be able to do something dangerous with it) and ran to Yartey whose shot was blocked after Brovsky had time to recover. But it was Nagbe’s ability to draw defenders and eliminate them that allowed the Timbers to turn a four-on-six into a three-on-two.
This wasn’t the only time we saw this sort of effect, and later in the second half the Timbers once again benefitted from a simple truth we saw above: Good things happen for attacking teams when the defensive shape collapses.
Nagbe’s magnetism draws defenders and, in the end, collapses defenses.
This next sequence should be familiar; it ends with a Dairon Asprilla goal. The beginning is very similar to the last sequence; Nagbe is picking the ball up just inside the attacking half with a fair bit of space around him.
The Nagbetism, which always starts with defenders’ eyes, is immediately evident. Despite the fact that the Timbers have a fair amount going on here (including an overlapping run from Villafana), four Citizens are once again focused on Nagbe. It’s only a matter of time before their bodies follow their eyes.
And in this next frame, the NYCFC defense is in full-on collapse mode. The Nagbetic effect doesn’t always lead to aesthetic football. In fact, here it’s downright ugly with a shape that would leave Little Timbers aficionados wanting for organization. But a scrum like this is much worse news for the defense than it is for the attack, as there are any number of ways the ball could squirt out to an unmarked attacker. And that’s exactly what happened here. The ball squirted to Gaston Fernandez before it found its way outside the scrum to Asprilla, who had faded just a couple steps outside the dog pile.
So, while there was certainly good fortune that went into the winner in New York, the Timbers created a lot of that luck when Nagbe collapsed the defense and generated the step of space Asprilla needed to strike his dangerous shot toward goal. And, most important for this coming weekend, the Timbers did so without committing major numbers to the attack.
Which brings us back to Seattle.
Although the Timbers have talked a lot this week about keeping the ball against the Sounders, realistically Portland won’t responsibly be able to devote the numbers to possession without opening themselves up to Seattle’s biggest offensive strength. And so the Timbers have likely going to have to generate space and numbers advantages where there otherwise wouldn’t be any. Which is exactly what Nagbe is expert at and did repeatedly against NYCFC.
If the Timbers are going to stand a chance of coming out of CenturyLink Field with any points, then, Nagbe’s ability use his Nagbetism to collapse a Sounders defense without its backbone will be paramount.