The duality of Darlington: Why we still believe Nagbe has more to offer

Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

What is Darlington Nagbe's best position? That continues to be the question for club and country.

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We’re back at full speed, on the same train we’ve jumped on and off for the last seven years. All it took was a good 87 minutes to get the hype back on course.

If you don’t know the ebbs and flows around Darlington Nagbe, you likely don’t know what we’re talking about. You likely don’t know why the potential of a 26-year-old attacker with 24 goals in 187 Major League Soccer games is still considered a major deal.

The reason Darlington Nagbe is so compelling is that everyone, from coaches to fans, see him as something special.

It’s been seven years since he first tickled national attention. Back then, Nagbe was finishing a dominant run at the University of Akron, leaving MLS fans wondering what their team would be with a player of his unmatched skill. Months later, Portland Timbers’ supporters wondered no more, beginning a six-year stretch enjoying one of the most technically gifted players Major League Soccer’s ever known.

In a world where “technically gifted” has become a lazy cliché, Nagbe deserves some specifics: His ability to control the ball is largely unmatched by anybody in the United States’ player pool. Most often, fans see this in the highlight-reel touches he uses to evade defenders in transition, but it’s most valuable as he receives possession from the back, with his sublime ability to master the ball’s path allowing him to maintain his balance at almost all times. The rare times the 5-foot-7 Nagbe (generously listed two inches taller) is taken off the ball without a whistle can be counted on one hand each season, and his unmatched ability to connect play through the middle third makes him an elite player in both transition and retention.

Starting for the United States on Sunday against Serbia, Nagbe flashed those gifts constantly, but his performance also highlighted the duality which  underscores the hype. For all this weekend’s promise, Nagbe was unable to do what so many of his coaches have pined for since he turned professional six years ago. He was unable to translate his promise onto the scoreboard.

Now, Nagbe and his talents have sent us on this ride before. After eight goals and four assists in 61 games to start his MLS career, Nagbe exploded after a reunion with head coach Caleb Porter, posting nine goals and four assists in 2013. Next year, his production wavered, a decent seven assists complemented by only one goal, but with a move to central midfield in 2015, he put up five and five – thoroughly decent for somebody bridging defense with attack. In 2016, however, Nagbe was eventually moved back to an attacking role, and his one goal and five assists defined a disappointing season.

The bigger picture

On one level, judging Nagbe by only goals and assists is the most unfair way to describe his game. Whereas his unwillingness to take chances in the final third left him 24th in MLS in chances created last season (players with at least 2,000 minutes played), his 89.9 percent passing accuracy ranked only behind Osvaldo Alonso, a defensive midfielder who benefits from playing more low-risk passes deeper on the field. Nagbe put up elite numbers, just not the numbers everybody wants.

That type of production that seems better-suited for a non-goal-scoring position, like a No. 8, and as Stumptown Footy’s Chris Rifer recently noted, there’s compelling evidence to suggest a central midfield role is Nagbe’s most productive spot. But, as Rifer also notes, there’s also a compelling case to be made that Nagbe’s versatility – his ability to be compelling at four different positions – is confounding the debate. Do we really know how good Nagbe can be in any role when, among the various positions he’s occupied, he’s constantly been moved around?

This year, Nagbe will be shifting to yet another spot. As opposed to the central midfield and right wing positions he occupied last season, 2017 will see him in a new role, the same one Arena cast him in against Serbia. In theory, left wing should give Nagbe the best chance to be his most productive, allowing him to play almost entirely onto his dominant right foot. Given a consistent role across club and country, Nagbe can avoid being punished by his versatility. Perhaps most important, though, a spot on the left would also do away with the excuses that have accompanied his lack of production.

That production almost came twice against Serbia: An early shot from inside the box that he couldn’t curve inside the right post, then a nearly identical ball later in the first half, one he should have laid off for Jozy Altidore. They were the perfect artifacts of a player whose talents hint one thing while the end product shows another. A hopeful person could see the chances as misses that could come good. A cynic would see those as excuses that have surrounded Nagbe all along.

In some ways, it is unfair to ask Nagbe to be more than the stellar connector he is, yet his coaches continue to put him in positions that demand more. And in that selection, we have to acknowledge what our eyes say, that this player is capable of increasing his scoresheet production. Arena is the latest to test his suspicions, but in fairness, he’s not the only one. The reason Darlington Nagbe is so compelling is that everyone, from coaches to fans, see him as something special.

If Nagbe does, one day, live up to that hype, he will fulfill scouting reports that cast him into stardom long before his MLS arrival. If he doesn’t, though, it’s worth remembering how unfair it is to ask a player to be everything to everybody. He is already a brilliant player. Arena is just the latest to suspect Nagbe can be brilliant on another level.

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Richard Farley is the West Coast Editor of FourFourTwo USA. Follow him on Twitter @richardfarley.