Friday, September 18, 2015

Open Letter to Darling: A Quiet Hit on a Quiet Man

When this man says, "let's tear it up," you do it.
(Strained reference to Something's Gotta Give")
Darling – can I call you, Darling? – look, we need to talk...

I’ll hang up the first-person open-letter gimmick. I doubt I could sustain it, for one, but there is something about Darlington Nagbe that begs for a reassessment – and this is borderline Come-to-Jesus-on-Judgment-Day - whether it’s his, um, too-subtle production or his approach to the game.

Before diving into...everything, let me pass on the necessary disclaimers. Yes, he’s talented, extravagantly so: the man pairs feet soft enough to polish bird-bone-brittle china with the strength, balance and durability to survive a half-dozen instances of naked assault and battery every single game and still keep the ball at his feet. And just about all season long, too. He has had his games - he carried the Portland Timbers through the early part of this injury-plagued 2015 campaign – and he has had his moments (ah, sweet, sweet #18). But has he had enough of either?

And, yet, for reasons I assume most people know and just about everyone can appreciate, Nagbe drives me fucking crazy. The short version comes in two parts: 1) while he’s fine attacking defenders with the ball, he’s maddeningly timid about attacking space without it; and 2) he’s under-achieving, obviously, one could even argue dramatically. All I can think when people enthuse about him joining the U.S. Men’s National Team is…why? Does he need another score-sheet to avoid, or something?

I don’t actually hate Nagbe; it’s like hating, I dunno, a cow or a chameleon or some other pleasant animal. He does, however, inspires me to call up a thesaurus to find some perfect word between “irk” and “hate,” one seasoned with a couple shakes of “resent.” “Scorn” feels like the best fit, due to its association with words like “reject” and “refuse.” (Let the record show that I was tempted by “discommode” and “incommode” – because, “commode,” because funny – and “discommode” comes pretty close, but, as with “irk,” it implies only mild exasperation).

Why is that? My argument is that, something’s gotta give. Whether it’s internal to Nagbe – on which I’ve stopped holding my breath for fear of suffocation – or doing something different with him. Three options lurk in that prior sentence:

1) Rebooting Plan A and hope that Nagbe improves (but...breathing?!)
2) Move him somewhere else on the field/within the formation*.
3) Trade him.

(* aka, damned, dirty lies; I’m fixated on this lately, people.)

Time to plop on a pith helmet and explore those options.

1) Rebooting Plan A
First, can we yank “be more aggressive” out of the suggestions box, please? He doesn’t listen, for one (NOTE: have fans and coaches suggest that he be less aggressive? Little of the Reverse Psy?), but Nagbe can be aggressive, in that he’ll run bravely at any man or group of men, but only when dribbling – i.e. with the ball at his feet. Nagbe is a fine dribbler, one of the best in Major League Soccer, but only to a point, because he’s pretty predictable. He goes and goes, pushing the defender(s) deeper and deeper into their defensive third until, finally, at the last possible second, with two, sometimes three defenders collapsing on his run, he squibs the ball out to a teammate. Sadly, said teammate may or may not be in a better position; I’ve seen stats the say otherwise earlier this year, but, usually, his position and the recipient’s are about equal due to the last-second dish. Also, Nagbe almost invariably stops his run at that point to wait for the back pass. What needs to change with Nagbe is less about mentality (e.g. aggressiveness) than method. The question turns on whether the coaching staff, or anyone for that matter, can work with Nagbe to improve the timing of his passes and the thought process behind them. Since he’s disinclined to run forward off the ball, maybe the club can level-up his ability to find the runs of teammates who are making runs, y'know, forward. Basically, and as I’ve argued before, Nagbe needs another dimension to his game for Plan A to get better than it has been. Or maybe Portland could...

2) Move Him
What if all that passivity is Nagbe’s way of asking the Timbers Brass-Brains Trust that he wants to play deeper, and they’re just not taking the hint? Would it be possible to, say, drop him into one of the two midfield spots in the Timbers current 4-2-3-1 formation (lies!)? Obviously, this requires bumping either Will Johnson or Diego Chara to make space. - and such experiment poses a whole new set of questions, besides. The big one: can either or all these players handle positions with such different responsibilities? For what it’s worth, I think Johnson would do all right in a wide, more advanced position; he might even improve on Nagbe in that he’s not shy about going forward, and he strikes me as more eager, even just better, at combining with others (and therefore more effectively). The bigger crap-shoot lies on the other side of the equation: even with Chara at his side (or even George Fochive) does Nagbe possess the ball-winning/slop-anticipating savvy to tackle that role? Does he possess the range of passing? While I’m not sold on the “grit/savvy” portion of the above, the Timbers wouldn’t give a lot away with Nagbe passing from a deeper, more central position. And he could start his runs from roughly the same place to boot and, hopefully, with another player (e.g. Johnson) in front of him. I dunno. I can’t think of where else I’d play Nagbe. Certainly wouldn’t be at forward, or closer to goal...and that leaves...

3) Trade Him
I believe this proposition gets further and further from heresy every day. Related, and no less significantly, I think a good case be made for trading Nagbe before a (potential) succession of (further) low-production years piles too high and weighs down his value as trade-bait. Basically, trade him today and I think the club could get real value. While I doubt the club could get, say, Fabian Castillo (and would he even work here?), I could see a club cough up someone on the level of the New England Revolution’s Kelyn Rowe or the San Jose Earthquakes Shea Salinas. Again, just a thought, but do mind the parentheticals in this paragraph.

It’s not so narrow as that, I suppose. For instance, the Timbers could test out Option #3 by having Nagbe sit out a couple matches; lord knows the man deserves a break, if only for the effort. All that said, where do I come down among the choices offered above? Whew. Deep breath…this was so much easier last night, in a bar and off the cuff...

While I find Option #2 both tempting and fascinating, my basic impatience with the situation makes me really reluctant to invest time in investigating this. I guess I’d go with a combination of Options #1 and #3. Make it clear to Nagbe that, this time, he really is playing for his job; hang Option #3 over his head, basically, and, if that doesn’t instill some kind of killer instinct...well, you release the lad into the wild woods of MLS. Or, hell, let him loose to see the world. I’m not sure how long I’d give him; I’m guessing I could hold on till mid-summer 2016...

...then again, breakups being breakups it might be cleaner to rip off the proverbial band-aid (NOTE: That is not a proverb).

Week 29 and Other Delights
Some big goddamned games hit the screen in Week 29 – and that’s after it delivered at least one shock. To put that another way, my, my, didn’t Toronto FC’s visit to The Dick suddenly grow into one fine, tall, important game for MLS’s ultimate arrivistes. Other questions posed by this Week 29’s games include:

1) Can the Montreal Impact become the Bolsheviks to New England’s Menshevik Revolution? (Shit...that analogy just pulled a muscle)?

2) Can the young, vibrant, yellow-clad new kids of Columbus Crew SC knock the walker out from under the savvy vets of DC United?

3) How will the San Jose Earthquakes handle their visit to a second consecutive (the first being a disappointing visit from) Eastern Conference minnow (e.g. their visit to New York City FC)?

3a) Yes, that one above does impact the Portland Timbers.

4) Almost as much as the second greatest clash of Week 29 – e.g. the Seattle Sounders limping their wounded asses up to run up against the well-oiled machine that is (are?) the Vancouver Whitecaps!

5) Meanwhile, and finally, down here in Stumptown the Portland Timbers face a big, big BIG test when the New York Red Bulls come to visit, fresh off a game that, frankly, could have gone better for them.

Clearly, we’re getting down to the real stuff, people. As pointed out, some of these matches could prove clinchingly vital. Enjoy the weekend! Back at ya Sunday after the Timbers game!

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