Darlington Nagbe's shift to central midfield has made all the difference for the Portland Timbers and their star player, writes Liviu Bird.
BEAVERTON, Ore.—Chapters about goal-setting in sports psychology texts frequently focus on the difference between process-oriented and outcome-oriented thinking. Teams and players can either emphasize only the end result and ignore the circumstances, or they can try to implement an approach that should net them wins in a more sustainable fashion.
That often means looking at indicators of success even when that success isn’t coming. For example, Portland Timbers coach Caleb Porter frequently mentions that his team led the league in shots, 486 in the regular season to the second-ranked New York Red Bulls’ 476, to illustrate that the attacking process had been building toward something more than the Timbers’ precarious standing would indicate.
“We’ve played aggressively this year,” he said after training on Tuesday. “No one lacked confidence or belief in the process or what we were doing, and I think that’s the big reason that at the end of the year, we got results.”
Portland won four of its last five regular-season games to cement its spot in the playoffs. After a thrilling 11-round shootout victory over Sporting Kansas City in the first round, the Timbers were an upper-corner save and a shot off the post from winning the goalless first leg of the Western Conference semifinals against the Vancouver Whitecaps on Sunday. Heading into the series continuation a week later, Porter said his team would maintain the same mentality.
“You learn to just stay focused on the process and to continue to believe in what you know,” Porter said, “And yet, I’m always challenging myself all the time, privately, and questioning, what could I do differently? That’s why going to Salt Lake [on Oct. 14], I felt it was a good time to change something.”
Despite leading the league in shutouts, the Timbers also only managed to score 41 goals in the regular season, the lowest among teams that qualified for the playoffs. The team’s most talented player, Darlington Nagbe, had also drifted far below the top form he showed in Porter’s inaugural 2013 season with the franchise.
Nagbe was the best passer on the team again in 2015, completing 88.9% of 1,226 attempts and creating 63 goalscoring opportunities, but something was missing. Despite the importance of his influence on the team, Nagbe had somehow been slightly marginalized.
“We were getting chances. We were playing well, but something was missing,” Porter said. “Also, with Darlington, you look at him and he wasn’t contributing as much as we felt he could. We had talked about moving him in the center—we talked about it, actually, in preseason. We talked about it a lot, but it just never really made sense.”
The Timbers have generally played with two holding midfielders under Porter, but with captain Will Johnson out again, still feeling the effects of a broken leg, Porter finally made the switch. Diego Chará played as the lone No. 6 against Real Salt Lake in the third-to-last game of the season, and Nagbe slid into central midfield from his usual position on the wing.
It paid off immediately.
Nagbe completed 96% of his passes and created four goalscoring opportunities in the 1-0 win over RSL, and he went on to score three of his five goals in the last three games of the regular season. Having a full 360 degrees of options on the ball, rather than 180 in wide areas, suits a player whose dribbling, passing and shooting threats are especially terrifying when combined.
“I’m a rhythm player,” Nagbe told SI.com. “Just getting more touches, I feel better as the game goes on and then [I’m] able to get guys involved a little bit more.”
Teams have to respect Nagbe’s presence all over the field and can’t mark him out of the game by using his wide positioning against him anymore. Now, he can influence the game from box to box, as seen on his 45th-minute dribble from the top of his own penalty area deep into Vancouver’s half that drew a free kick in a good position and a yellow card on Sunday.
The 25-year-old’s rejuvenation comes in the weeks after earning his American citizenship, and just before United States coach Jurgen Klinsmann is set to name his squad for the first 2018 World Cup qualifiers. Nagbe is finally eligible to represent the country he has called home since he was an infant, and though Porter has said Klinsmann was in touch to inquire about Nagbe’s availability, the player isn’t thinking too far ahead.
“If it happens, then it happens,” Nagbe said. “It’s a great opportunity for any player, no matter who you are, to go represent your country. Hopefully, it happens soon.”
Back in Portland, the biggest concern with the tactical shift was whether Nagbe would be able to do the defensive work required in the middle, but Porter said the transition has been easy. Nagbe isn’t a tough-tackling type like Chará or Johnson, but his smart positioning cuts off passing lanes, and his athleticism allows him to recover knockdowns and loose balls.
“We also felt that we probably weren’t going to have to defend as much and the opponent was going to have to deal with us more,” Porter said. “The biggest reason he’s impacted the game more is he’s just more free to float wherever he wants to, to find the game, get on the ball, and you saw that last game.”
Nagbe finished with 104 touches, a career-high for one game, recovered nine loose balls and completed eight successful dribbles. It’s not the first stretch this season he’s played centrally, as he started six of the first nine games there when Diego Valeri was still recovering from an ACL tear. When Valeri returned, Nagbe resumed his usual wider spot.
In the late-season switch, Nagbe and Valeri have both been healthy and now play in the same space. Their dynamic in the creative midfield block allows each to play to their strengths and Porter to play with one holding midfielder, as he did at University of Akron when his possession philosophy lit up the college game.
“[Nagbe] was the most-involved player, which also I think helps free up Valeri,” Porter said. “Valeri was a little more free to float in the channels because [Nagbe] is there to find the ball deep, get it off the back line, start attacks, but also Darlington will surge forward.”
The shift also marks something of a return to Porter’s more idealistic style, dubbed “Porterball” in his first season as a pro coach in 2013, that has the Timbers playing their best football of the season.
It’s the natural antithesis of Sunday’s opponent, as Carl Robinson’s Whitecaps have been most dangerous this season counterattacking through their youthful, pacey players.
“They play a little different than we do, but they’re very effective in how they play,” Porter said. “Our games versus them are very interesting and exciting, and there are a lot of elements that go into these games we play versus Vancouver.”
Portland might shift its approach again to account for future opposition, but for now, the Timbers have been effective playing vintage Porterball. The team hasn’t lost since moving Nagbe back into central midfield, five games ago.
“We’re back more possessing the ball, like I’d prefer, but that’s not always going to be the case,” Porter said. “We’ll do whatever it takes to win, but I am enjoying the way we’re playing right now, and it’s working.”