Gluck: Darlington Nagbe – Where Should He Play?

Darlington Nagbe – An enigmatic enigma of enormous energy where expectations are exceedingly high since he’s easily one of the most ingenious players ever to wear/bleed “Timber Green”.

Playing background:  Nagbe set to be first Timbers player to hit 200-game milestone.

With his next appearance, Darlington Nagbe will become the first Timbers player to reach the 200 games played mark with the club.  If he plays Sunday (which he did), Nagbe will be the second-youngest player ever to hit the 200-games played mark with a single MLS club, best only by Eddie Gavin.

Primary highlights as described by the Portland Timbers profile:

  • PERSONAL: Pronounced “NAG-bee” … Father, Joe, is a for­mer captain of the Liberian National Team …
  • COLLEGE: Compiled 19 goals and 19 assists in 73 matches during three collegiate seasons at the University of Akron …
  • 2011: Made his professional and MLS debut April 2, coming on as a second-half sub in a 1-1 draw at New England … In total, made 28 appearances (21 starts) in his rookie campaign …
  • 2012: Played in 33 games (31 starts) during the regular season, logging 2,777 minutes played and six goals … Finished second on the team in goals scored …
  • 2013: Established career numbers in his third MLS season, starting all 34 games during the regular season and recording nine goals and four assists …
  • 2014: Tallied one goal and an MLS career-high seven assists in 32 appearances (30 starts) during the 2014 season …
  • 2015: Played every minute during the 2015 MLS Cup playoffs (570 minutes) … Tallied an assist in a 2-1 win over Columbus Crew SC in MLS Cup on Dec. 6 …
  • 2016: Appeared in 27 MLS regular-season games (27 starts) … Scored his 24th career MLS goal in a 4-2 win against Vancouver on May 22 …
  • 2017:  More to follow (my words)

Darlington Nagbe as a member of the United States Men’s National Team:

Unappreciated (unrecognized?) skills with Jurgen Klinsmann as Head Coach versus appreciated/recognized and leveraged skills with Bruce Arena as Head Coach.

The question here, as has been the question with Caleb Porter, — where to play and make the best use of what Darlington Nagbe brings to the pitch?

Four years ago I sat down with Caleb Porter and offered, at that time, the best place to make best use of Darlington’s skills was on the left side.

Caleb responded by saying Gavin said pretty much the same thing to me and acknowledged, after reviewing his overall statistics and productivity, he’s more productive on the left side.  The hard part in playing Darlington on the left side is not having someone of good enough caliber to fill the void that move would create on our right side.

Fast forward, two years later, and we saw Porter make that transition; evidence of success showed itself when the Timbers closed out 2015 as MLS Champions.


In the past few weeks we’ve seen Darlington (with the US Men’s National Team as well as Portland) get minutes on the right, middle, and left; some purposeful minutes – some not; some a resultant of other player injuries some not.  Given those performances…

Has the question on where to play Darlington been renewed?

And if so, does the answer remain the same?

I say “Yes” and “No”.  I’ve asked myself, and others, to put pen to paper in these four categories; purposefully excluded ‘much-misunderstood/maligned’ individual statistics. 

  • Strengths
  • Weaknesses
  • Skills to sustain on the pitch
  • Skills to improve on the pitch

My view after watching nearly every single game he’s played since 2011: 

  • Strengths:  Very good ball control to include first touch, second touch, turning, and dribble capability.  I’d offer he has the to create space, for himself and others, while ‘eating/using/making time’ for himself and others.  In the last few years I’d offer he has added greater ability to playing on both sides of the ball; and importantly, making tackles/slowing opponent play without garnering yellow/red cards.  A player who connects well (in short passing) with team-mates.
  • Weaknesses:  Hasn’t shown consistent capability in offering ‘seeing-eye’ through balls; sometimes offers far more ‘negative’ or ‘lateral’ passes then forward leaning passes.  Doesn’t strike the ball on goal enough, is far too complacent in ‘dribble penetration into the 18 yard box to make things happen’ and sometimes runs out of gas midway through the second half.
  • Skills to sustain on the pitch:  All his current strengths – when doing those things well it’s critical to continue to train in doing those things well… as he matures his timing will alter so practicing what he does well sustains what he does well.
  • Skills to improve on the pitch:
    • Increase crossing/switching capability – as in master the 30-50 yard pass.
    • Increase free kick accuracy – a player like Darlington needs to upgrade his ‘set-piece’ expertise in order to “bend it like Beckham”.
    • If he continues to play on the attacking half of the pitch (more often) execute more dribble/drive penetration into the 18 yard box; when watching his play these last few years it seems he defaults to others as he approaches the 18 yard box.
    • I’d submit this gets to the heart of the issue most have with Darlington – he’s not aggressive/egotistical enough on the pitch to instill his personality into the game.

If Darlington doesn’t upgrade his game to include that more forceful presence then he needs to move elsewhere on the pitch so that others (with near his same technical ability) can.  Basically, either up your penetration/shooting presence or move back.

I’d offer, after waiting six years Darlington isn’t going to do that – as such I’d submit he needs to learn more positional sense/awareness in playing the proto-typical #6.

This new position probably requires the Head Coach to run a 4-3-2-1 or 4-1-4-1 – not something Caleb Porter has ever run (I think) and probably a formation Bruce Arena can run but, as yet, has not.

A move in this direction sustains all the current strengths of Darlington, mitigates many of his weaknesses especially since he won’t be expected to ‘dribble penetrate into the 18 yard box nor will he need to play box-to-box.

And if the opponent is not pressing high up the pitch it will afford him slightly more time to open up his ability to make more 20-50 yard forward leaning switches/crosses.