The Portland Timbers midfielder is settling in as a U.S. national team starter, and while it may feel like he could do more, he’s delivering plenty
That has become a lasting refrain through a career that has shown glimpses of greatness for years, but had really begun to show us the possibilities over the past two years. He was a big part of the Portland Timbers’ MLS Cup title run in 2015, and more recently he has flourished with the U.S. national team since Bruce Arena replaced Jurgen Klinsmann, who had seemingly placed Nagbe in his crowded doghouse.Still, Nagbe can do more. That is something few people disagree with, but it’s easy to get caught up in what so many think he should be doing to the point you almost wind up missing the things he is doing.
When he dribbles through a defense and lays off a nice pass, it’s easy to think he should have kept the ball and scored himself. When he does keep the ball and draws a dangerous free kick, the complaint becomes why didn’t he fight off the challenge and put the ball in the net? And when he does score a goal, usually in spectacular fashion, the reaction is to ask why he doesn’t do that every week.
In Wednesday’s U.S. win against El Salvador, Nagbe didn’t score or deliver an assist, but his ability to hold the ball and dribble out of pressure proved invaluable against an opponent that had success forcing many of his teammates into turnovers. Nagbe’s strength and poise, partnered with Michael Bradley’s imposing presence, gave the U.S. a pairing that eventually helped take control of a match El Salvador controlled in the first half.
“He’s just a very good player, very much a team player,” Arena said of Nagbe on Wednesday. “I’d like him to be a little more selfish at times, but he’s an excellent player. He can play on the wing as well. We’ll play it a little bit different. He won’t be a traditional winger. That’s another option we have for him. Wherever we put him on the field, he seems to respond well.”
Nagbe has heard that familiar message from Timbers coach Caleb Porter plenty of times before. Be more selfish. Take the ball and go at people. Don’t settle for the easy pass when you can pull off the difficult dribble. Arena let Nagbe know he should look to take people on more, and hold on to the ball longer because of his success running at defenders, but his natural instinct to pass when he sees an open teammate rather than forcing a dribble — even though he’s good enough to pull it off — is something that isn’t likely to ever change completely.
“I think I’m wired to do it, but it’s definitely something I can still work on,” Nagbe told Goal of his pass-first mentality. “I think Bruce was right. I had a couple of opportunities (on Wednesday) where I could have driven more but dished off the ball. It’s something I continue to work on.”
Arena wasn’t exactly complaining about Nagbe’s play on Wednesday, and neither were his teammates, who value his ability to control possession.
“I think Darlington is still a cut above the rest man,” Jozy Altidore said. “He’s able to keep the ball. I don’t think he gets enough credit. He keeps the ball in tight spaces, it’s impossible to get the ball off him. Yeah, he can give more, but I think that’s good. The fact that he’s still not playing at his level, but I think he’s been terrific for us, and I thought he was terrific again (on Wednesday).”
Nagbe should play an instrumental role in Saturday’s Gold Cup semifinal at AT&T Stadium against Costa Rica, a team that has given up just one goal in four Gold Cup matches. The Ticos defense is difficult to break down, and doing so requires patience, possession and precision. Whether deployed on the left wing and pinching in, or in an attacking midfield role, Nagbe will be key to the U.S. chances, whether he becomes more selfish or not.
“(Nagbe) can affect the game in other ways besides having to run at people or make a killer pass or shoot. He can still be very beneficial,” retired U.S. national team star and FOX Sports analyst Landon Donovan told Goal. “I think he’s done really well. I think he has started to see that he can be more aggressive, and I’ve seen that as he’s been here with Bruce. I think Bruce is giving him total freedom to just go. ‘You’re good enough. You have no idea how good you are.’ I think he’s starting to see that. But you also don’t want to take him away from what he does naturally.”
Nagbe is growing into his increased role with the national team, which was clear to see in the recent World Cup qualifiers. He was one of the U.S. team’s best players in the June qualifying win against Trinidad & Tobago, and the experience he is gaining is helping him play with more ease.
“Just my teammates and coaching staff. They’ve both helped me instill confidence in me, and tell me to just continue doing what I’m doing,” Nagbe said when asked why he’s playing better now for the U.S.. “Obviously getting to know the guys better, and their tendencies, and how they play has helped me as well.”
Nagbe is two wins away from adding a Gold Cup to the MLS Cup he won almost two years ago. You can tell he’s feeling more comfortable in the U.S. national team setup under Arena, who is giving him the freedom to continue developing his game at his own pace. As much as there is a feeling that we have yet to see Nagbe’s best, Donovan cautions that we shouldn’t let his potential overshadow his production.
“Clearly, everyone says he’s a great player, he’s good, he’s special. So are we trying to push him into something he’s not?” Donovan said to Goal. “Isn’t it good enough that he’s being effective? He’s made it to the national team being who he is. That’s pretty damn good. Can he maybe turn it up a little bit? Maybe, but I think he’s done really well.”