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How do you replace Darlington Nagbe?

It’s hard but a nice surplus of allocation dollars helps

Match Gallery: Timbers vs. Galaxy Roscoe Myrick —

With a new and highly regarded new coach and a crop of young talent, the Portland Timbers are an enigma heading into 2017. One on hand, Giovanni Savarese is roughly inheriting the same Timbers players who won the Western Conference just a few months ago. However, without Darlington Nagbe, it’s an entirely different team.

With that in mind, when trying to read the tea leaves for 2018 perhaps the best way to predict the immediate future of the squad is to look at what Darlington Nagbe provided and how the team will compensate the loss of the versatile playmaker.

When Caleb Porter stepped down unexpectedly in November, Nagbe told Ives Galarcep he desired “a change (sic) and new environment”. Despite considerable leverage, Portland was still able to procure an MLS record haul when it traded Nagbe away for more than $1 million in allocation money.

Going solely by traditional counting statistics, Nagbe is a middling MLS player coming of a modest three goal season nearly five years removed from his most serious flirtation with hitting double-digits in goals scored. The advanced statistics disagree; Opta put Nagbe in it’s Best XI in 2017, but even Opta falls short of explaining Nagbe’s influence on his team.

Positional flexibility

Heading into last season, Caleb Porter’s desire was to play Nagbe at left wing. That was the plan but, as the season progressed and injuries began to mount, the durable Nagbe would start at multiple positions, because as Porter would explain: Nagbe was good anywhere he was put on the field.

Nagbe played the fourth most minutes on the team, but his positional flexibility meant he seldom had a position to call his own.

Even during that brief period of relative health in October, Nagbe flitted between both wings and defensive midfielder roles. On a loaded Atlanta roster, Gerardo “Tata” Martino is playing Nagbe in a holding role but knows full well that Nagbe can fill in virtually any attacking role should Tata need him to.

Frankly, Nagbe’s flexibility is will be hard for the Timbers to replace. They aren’t entirely bereft of versatility; Sebastian Blanco is still dangerous even though he’s moving to the left to accommodate Andy Polo, for example. It will be interesting to see how the midfield shakes out. Will Blanco will likely provide more of a facilitating role in the midfield, or will he pull out further left (as opposed to Nagbe’s tendency to go towards the middle)?

Keeping possession

Accurate, unpredictable passing is what lays at the heart of any possession-oriented team. So much so that they called Porter’s championship Akron Zips team, of which Nagbe was a key figure, “Death by 1,000 Passes.” As he progressed into a professional career, Nagbe only improved, leaving 2017 with the following achievements:

  • Nagbe was the only midfielder in the league to record a 98 percent passing accuracy in two games or more in 2017 (minimum 20 passes).
  • In a road match against Sporting Kansas City, Nagbe became the sixth MLS player since 2010 to complete 100 percent of his passes (min. of 52 pass attempts).
  • According to Opta, Nagbe had five games when he completed at least 95% of his passes; more than any other MLS player (min. 50 attempts).

Nagbe’s 92.1% accuracy was ten percentage points higher than the Timbers team average. Nagbe’s passing rate, impressive as it is, may belie the fact that Nagbe is so impressive with the ball, teams would lay off him. Nagbe was the team’s most effective dribbler with only Blanco having more successful dribbles, but with far more attempts.

Darlington Nagbe has much in common with a McLaren Mercedas and Stradivarius: expensive, precious, and rare marvels in a class all of their own. Portland had Nagbe under team control on a manageable contract—including milking all they could from his generation Adidas status. Now it’s Atlanta who has to decide if they are going to honor Nagbe’s desire for a contract approaching DP status, as has been rumored.

All this to say, Darlington Nagbe really isn’t the sort of player that can be replaced. Giovanni Savarese may be without Portland’s resident glue-man, but it’s a challenge he embraces. Teams knew once they could slow down Portland’s transition play, they could force the Timbers into a predictable set. It’s going to be interesting to watch how Portland adapts not only without Nagbe, but also with all the new resources acquired in his wake. One thing is for sure: The Timbers are going to have to bring a different look in transition this year.