PORTLAND, Ore. – Darlington Nagbe’s goal in the Portland Timbers’1-1 tie against FC Dallas last Saturday was a sign that the young attacker is returning to form after a preseason ankle injury.
But it’s also a sign that head coach John Spencer has some tough choices to make in the coming weeks, starting with Saturday’s game at the New England Revolution.
Nagbe, the second-year player selected No. 2 overall in last year’s SuperDraft, has been left off the starting XI in the Timbers’ first two games this season following a rookie year in which he started 21 times.
Finding him a spot this season has been a conundrum. The addition of Designated Player Kris Boyd and the play of a rejuvenated Jorge Perlaza have given Spencer some other options in place of the former Akron star.
WATCH: Spencer calls Nagbe goal
“It’s a problem that every coach wants to have,” Spencer said. “You want all your forwards playing well and champing at the bit to get on the field and score goals. [Nagbe’s] no different. I think [the goal] was great for his confidence because he did start well the first couple weeks of preseason and then got the ankle sprain that set him back a little bit.
“I think he’s feeling a little bit down because his performances in training were so good. Now getting on the field and scoring that goal so early always gives you a lift as a forward. So that was good for him.”
Figuring that Boyd is a lock to play if healthy, the decision of who starts and who sits presumably comes down to a comparison between Nagbe and Perlaza.
“If I keep getting in and doing well, I think I’ll be in the lineup and that’s the ultimate goal,” Nagbe said.
Against FC Dallas, Spencer said the team was struggling with keeping possession up top, which led to Nagbe replacing Perlaza at halftime. And the stats bear that out.
Aside from Nagbe’s goal, which came after a poor clearance kick by Dallas goalkeeper Kevin Hartman, Nagbe performed 13 successful passes to Perlaza’s six.
Portland created five scoring chances to just one for FCD in the second half.
“It was just the fact that every ball that went up there kept coming straight back at us,” Spencer said. “We couldn’t keep the ball and couldn’t get the midfield to join in the attack. One thing about [Nagbe] is, back to the goal, he keeps the ball for you. And I just felt it was a good one for us if we could get the ball into his feet he could retain possession and maybe we could squeeze the game a bit and play in their half. And that’s definitely what happened in the second half.”
Nagbe said he’s focusing on his continued rehab and competing during training to earn a spot on game day.
“The ankle is feeling better and better each week, so I’m feeling good,” he said. “Last year it took me awhile to get my first one. And this year it only took me two games to get my first goal so hopefully I can keep it going. It’s more pressure, but it also makes you a better player.”
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.