It's gone from promising to worrying to bad to worse to unbearable this year for the Portland Timbers. With the latest string of defeats, the last one a demoralizing 1-0 home loss to a mediocre Chivas USA side that completed Chivas' sweep of the Timbers. Right now, Portland sits in last place in all of MLS, and it's not because of any injuries, or weak links, or coaches. The problem is, this team sucks. And when a team sucks, they rebuild. With the Portland Timbers going into rebuilding mode after a 2012 season that has thus far challenged the gravity of the word disaster, the team will be deciding which players need to be tossed out, and which players Timbers 2.0 will be built around.
Certainly, the Timbers have a handful of talented players. The infrequently brilliant Kalif Alhasson is jaw-dropping when he's on. Kris Boyd has the resume, and the goalscoring chops. Troy Perkins is a steadying force in net, who has saved the Timbers defense too many times this year to count. Diego Chara is solid. Danny Mwanga could be something. And yet, you don't build around a player as inconsistent and frustrating as Alhasson, someone with the temper and track-record of Boyd. You can't build around a goalkeeper, you can't build around solid, and you won't build around a hope that a failing # 1 pick will show up some day and live up to the place he was drafted. Teams rebuild around potential, the potential for greatness. Teams like young players, who have shown flashes of what they might be when they mature. For the Timbers, only one player fits that bill: Darlington Nagbe.
As far as flashes of brilliance go, Nagbe has had his fair share. His ridiculous 25 yard volley goal against Sporting Kansas City won him MLS goal of the season last year, and in the later part of the 2011, Nagbe grew into his talent as a forward, in John Spencer's attacking, up-tempo, movement based attack. The start of this year was more than promising, the crown jewel being Nagbe's first professional brace, as he scored two wonderful goals, only to see the Timbers slump to defeat in stoppage time. And yet, that night, disappointing as it was, wasn't all bleak, as MLS thought it had found a new superstar. Instead, the rest of Nagbe's season this year, as it turned out last year, has been filled with nondescript games, in which Nagbe makes no impact, and has no say in proceedings.
Save for a few mantle-piece moments, Nagbe's career has been a head-scratching gray area. There's no question that the Timbers # 2 pick in the 2011 MLS SuperDraft has talent, but he certainly hasn't cultivated it so far. Nagbe is a magician holding the ball, in fact it's a rare defender that can strip Nagbe in open play. The way he uses a combination of body position, dribbling, and weaving through other players is impressive. Yet, Nagbe isn't so productive with the ball for a man that can play with it so easily. He doesn't have a single assist this year, and how many times can you remember him springing a Portland goal?
For a player with gobs of natural skill, Nagbe looks shockingly timid in front of goal. It appears that beyond anything else, he just gets cold feet when an opportunity is staring him in the face, the opening stanza of the game against Chivas being a prime example. When Nagbe doesn't have time to think that he should score, he's fine in front of goal. Take his wonder goals against SKC, Real Salt Lake, or his twisting headed goal against New England last year. But a play-maker like Nagbe, especially when he's playing a free role behind the forwards, or at forwards, must score goals. Must. We talk about the Timbers goalscoring difficulties, and most have those problems have sprung from the fact that the Timbers midfielders don't score any goals, and Nagbe is at the head of that group.
Part of Nagbe's inconsistency has to rise from the fact that neither the Timbers, nor Nagbe himself know what his best position is. Since Nagbe was drafted by the Timbers, he has been started as a winger, a forward, a striker, a central midfielder, and in a free role, which he has played most this season, that puts him behind the forwards and gives him room to roam. Nagbe's obvious talent, and inability to perform consistently at a high level from a single position left Spencer, and now Wilkinson, searching for answers.
But it's possible that Nagbe hasn't yet been played at his best position: Straight up central midfield. Some of Nagbe's best work is his ability to hold the ball, but it's deeper in the park that he's best at doing that. Holding the ball like he does is could be vital in springing counterattacks, something the Timbers have to take advantage of this year. Whatever position the Timbers brass feel is best for Nagbe going forward, they need to make a decision and stick with it. Let him get comfortable, really learn a position, and results will follow.
As the Timbers go forward in 2013 and beyond, it feels like Darlington Nagbe could be, and should be, with his skill, at the center of their plans. It will be important for the Timbers next coach to figure out how best to use the Timbers closest thing to a long-term star, and get the best out of him. In fact, that would be my first interview question. How do you make Project Nagbe a success? As Nagbe rises or falls over time, it feels that the Timbers will rise or fall with him.
In Darlington Nagbe, Timbers have in their grasp the kind of play-maker and game-changer that every championship soccer team has. They also have in their hands the potential for the Timbers first high-profile draft flop. It's up to Nagbe to cultivate his talent on a consistent basis, and it's up to the Timbers to guide him on that path. So far, it hasn't been much of a success. But for the Timbers to be successful going forward, that has to change.