By Harrison Crow (@Harrison_Crow)
A couple of weeks ago, while listening to Major League Soccer Soccer dot com's very own podcast, Extra Time Radio, Alexi Lalas provided some insight to the emergence Darlington Nagbe. The newly-minted US International and always-minted Portland starlet's blossoming can simply be chalked up to "more touches." It's not that I disagree with that synopsis, but I feel that is too simplistic.
Nagbe has been excellent for years. We've seen him time after time change matches with moments that are breathtaking. His biggest problem has always been consistency, going multiple matches without directly being the influence that should be expected from his talent. Of course, "consistency" is just sports fans' code word for "he's not good enough often enough."
That's seemingly changed over the last few months with goals that we've longed for since he fell to Portland with the second pick in 2011. Some have chalked it up to a move back into central midfield from a wide position after the injury of Diego Valeri. However, as the numbers portray below, that specific narrative isn't entirely accurate.
There is an obvious sample size caveat that exists, but it's five different positions with central midfield tallying the fewest minutes of all at 180 minutes. And even if we turn these into percentages and relate them to the rest of the team, we see there isn't one specific position that stands out besides central midfield in a very small sampling.
Obviously, Nagbe has done well in central midfield, but there's not nearly enough evidence to claim he's played that much better than anywhere else. Another thing that stands out here, going back to the beginning of this exploration, is a lack of correlation between having more touches and being more productive. The former Akron Zip isn't necessarily becoming more effective with the increase volume of touches, and conversely, nor do we really know if he gets worse with fewer touches.
The biggest thing to jump out here is that Nagbe's personal production and involvement increased, but so did his loss of possession as shown by his touch to turnover ratio. Without being able to accurately weight the value of his touches now that he's more touchy, we just can't make the argument that more touches is better.
The next question is how has the team fared in relation to the positional adjustments.
This is kind of where things are interesting. 1,400 of his 2,800 minutes played are out at the Attacking Right Midfield according to Whoscored, and while his personal production doesn't decline the team's numbers appear less positive with him out wide. Which is interesting, and his move back to the middle of the park might explain the Timbers' performance in the second half of the season and implied appearance of improved play.
It's probable that Nagbe's play has improved. His and the team's numbers support that hypothesis to some degree, and our eyes seem to think so, too. But regardless of his team's form and the lack of results during his wide play, he's still a superior talent comparable to the best in the league. Plucking two familiar names out of an imaginary hat that exsist toward the top of any best of MLS wide players list, Nagbe's performance is near par and possibly above those of either Ethan Finlay or Fabian Castillo this past season.
Nagbe exceeds Finlay in every category and competes with Castillo on both dribbles and shots created, while surpassing him in defensive actions. This speaks volumes about how we think of Nagbe. We've associated his ascension with an improvement in offensive production, but it's quite possible that--relative to position--he's a valuable defender as well. And he's been doing it all season.
Nagbe isn't just a one-trick pony. In addition to his apparent involvement on defense, he's one that can create for his teammates, create for himself and support his team by playing multiple positions while maintaining efficiency relative to the number of touches that he receives. He doesn't just play one side of the ball, either, as he's a solid defensive player who still drifts back into the defensive third to help support and win back possession. To top it off, it's not like positional flexibility is worthless. Nagbe surely adds value from his ability to play multiple positions at a level well above average.
These are probably things we all knew to some extent. But the problem is that most have resolved to believe or have just come to accept that the Timbers success rises and falls with Darlington Nagbe. When he steps up in some meaningful and memorable way, they win games. The truth is less sexy. He has been stepping up in huge ways that compare with the best in the league...all season. Unfortunately he's only receiving due for a short period of time in which his team has been successful.
The reality is that he's been very good for most of the season. But this isn't the NBA and the Jordan/Kobe rule isn't in effect. The best player having the best game doesn't always influence the match in such a meaningful way as in a sport like basketball.
Portland could lose today and it wouldn't be Darlington Nagbe's fault or a result of him "having a bad day." Likewise they could beat the Crew and win their first MLS Cup, and that doesn't necessarily equate to Nagbe playing well. Team results are rarely a representative of a given player's performance.
It would be a fun narrative to talk about Nagbe dominating and leading the Timbers to an MLS Cup, and should he be responsible by way of assist or goal on the way to winning the Cup, you can mark it down that will be a top story. But a deeper look tells us that, while Nagbe is and has been a fantastic player, he'll need some friends to show up Sunday afternoon for the Timbers to steal one last road victory from their hosts.