It came as no surprise last November that Columbus Crew SC acquired U.S. Men’s National Team midfielder, Darlington Nagbe from Atlanta United. The transaction had been rumored as far back as when the club hired Caleb Porter as head coach in December of 2018. Porter coached Nagbe at both Akron and the Portland Timbers, so it was merely a matter of when, not if such a transaction would transpire.
Now that Nagbe, a Cleveland resident as a youth, is officially a member of the Black & Gold, Crew fans are clamoring to know what he will bring to his new club.
Nagbe has been a bit of an enigma throughout his Major League Soccer career. Selected with the second overall pick of the 2011 MLS Super Draft, the expectations were exceptionally high for the midfielder. It was deemed a forgone conclusion that Porter would be able to bring the absolute best out of Nagbe with the Timbers. However, early on the results were mixed, as it took multiple seasons for the midfielder to find a consistent rhythm in Portland. Seeking to unlock Nagbe’s best, Porter played him in a variety of positions; a classic central midfielder, a box-to-box midfield, a creative attacking midfielder and even on the wing. The struggles and frustration were apparent.
This isn’t to say that Nagbe didn’t churn out moments of success. He supplied several moments of pure brilliance, scoring a multitude of wonder goals, including earning the 2011 MLS Goal of the Year. His display of skill on the ball was paramount. It was his lack of consistency in making an impact that was problematic and frustrating for fans and soccer pundits alike.
After cycling through a variety of positions and schemes, Nagbe’s time as a box-to-box roaming midfielder was where we really saw him thrive. His ability with the ball at his feet, to create, facilitate and distribute are rare within the United States talent pool. While his goal production dipped after moving to Atlanta ahead of the 2018 season, his role also changed under Tata Martino and then the following season with Frank de Boer.
When you look at Nagbe’s nine-year professional career, nothing about his stat line jumps off the page. He has never scored double-digit goals in a season, nor has he accumulated more than a handful assists in any given year. His real value is in his presence. He earns fouls in dangerous spots. His 1 v. 1 attacking prowess is in the top five percent of the league, an attribute in which opposing defenses are weary. Defenders have the unflattering task of picking their own poison in guarding the crafty playmaker; do I pressure him to shoot, do I allow him to pass, or do we try to double him up, so to not be broken down 1 v. 1?
If Porter and his staff can bring that Nagbe to life, the Crew’s offense instantly improves tenfold from last season. Under Porter’s watch, conventional wisdom would dictate that he slots Nagbe back into a similar role he played during his last couple of seasons in Portland. His job was to find the ball, possess the ball and push a multi-pronged attack as a setup man first, and goal scorer second. He makes the players around him more lethal. He takes the pressure off them and shoulders the bulk of the burden himself. Professional athletes play at their best when they feel loose and uninhibited. Nagbe will bring that feeling to the like of Pedro Santos, Gyasi Zardes and even fellow midfielder Wil Trapp.
Speaking of Trapp, Nagbe’s game is a perfect complement to the Crew captain. A midfield triad of the newly acquired Lucas Zelarayan, Trapp and Nagbe is young, yet experienced and multifaceted. Trapp can be the anchor in a pure holding midfield role, without the need to push into the attack. Zelarayan will be the creator and offensive centerpiece and Nagbe can be the overall engine that roams throughout the pitch. Nagbe tends to drift and meander throughout the field, so Trapp will need to stay home to ensure Columbus doesn’t get caught shorthanded on a counterattack. One area that the current midfield lacks, is having a true destroyer to break up counters, a defensive-midfielder with bite and ability to tackle. David Guzman was supposed to be that player, but he struggled mightily in Columbus. It is likely that Porter desires such a player (think Diego Chara in Portland, Dax McCarty in Nashville).
Crew president and general manager Tim Bezbatchenko stated when announcing Nagbe’s signing, “We’re starting to evolve the team in what we’re trying to do tactically and from a cultural standpoint. Most importantly, Nagbe is a winner. We feel there were times we lacked a killer instinct, or that little bit of quality for us to see out games. Nagbe has all the attributes that we look for in starting to build a team, both the character and skills to win.”
Porter now has his man. In reference to Nagbe, Porter was emphatic in stating, “He checks all the boxes and makes a good statement for the type of players we want. We want technical players, creative players, we want to be a team that has the ball. But we also want to be dynamic, aggressive. You need players that have range. We don’t want to be a predictable team; we want to play in a multi-faceted way.”
Nagbe’s versatility has allowed him to feature in a variety of roles, but his playmaking ability is what sets him apart from most of the rest of the league. The Crew’s offensive struggles last season were due to not having a true playmaker once Federico Higuain went down to injury. Theoretically, that obstacle, and a huge one it was, has been overcome in acquiring Nagbe and Zelarayan. The Crew attack has its engine. After such a tumultuous 2019 campaign, the Black & Gold have their pillar for 2020 and beyond.