BEAVERTON, Ore. – The Portland Timbers could use a big dose of Darlington Nagbe right about now.
With two goals scored in their first three games of 2014 – for the third-highest scoring team in MLS last season – the Timbers attack, for whatever reason, is stuck.
The good news for Portland is they’ve hit a confluence of the schedule that might just kick their offense into gear, and it has everything to do with Nagbe, one of the league’s most dynamic forwards who was Portland’s second-leading scorer last season with nine goals. Four of those 2013 goals came against FC Dallas, the Timbers’ opponent in a Saturday matchup at Toyota Stadium (8:30 pm ET; MLS Live).
“A goal,” Timbers head coach Caleb Porter said when asked what he expects out of Nagbe on Saturday. “I’m expecting a goal.”
He’d likely take two or three, as even the Timbers' two goals this season haven’t come easy.
New forward Gaston Fernandez has provided them both, and both came as late equalizers in 1-1 draws against both the Philadelphia Union and Chicago Fire, rescuing what could have been a much more disastrous start.
But Nagbe said that even though he’s going up against a team he devoured last season – whose goals included game-winners June 15, a spinning Goal of the Year nominee, and Aug. 17 – giving Portland three wins and a draw in four games against FCD across all competition last year, that doesn't mean he's guaranteed to repeat history.
“I think it’s mostly luck,” Nagbe said Thursday after their final session at the team training facility before departing for Dallas. “I feel like they have a good team and good attacking guys, so I feel like it brings out the best in our attacking guys. I’m looking forward to a good game.”
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Nagbe said Porter has encouraged him and the rest of Portland’s attackers to take more risks with the hope of greater reward. Outside of their 2-0 loss last week to the Colorado Rapids, when the Timbers were cut down to 10 men in the second half, Portland outshot and out-possessed their first two opponents.
But two goals out of 43 attempts on goal isn’t good enough, Porter said.
“He just told the attackers, don’t worry about losing the ball as much,” Nagbe said. “He felt like we were playing maybe a little too safe. He just told us to go out there and take risks, and things will happen. And we’re going to try to do that.”
Nagbe said one way they can do that is by playing down the wings more to open things up for their central attackers.
“I feel like teams are teams are playing us tight, not only myself, but for our other attackers it’s hard to get shots off,” Nagbe said. “So we have to try to rely on crosses a little bit more, cutting it back and getting shots that way.”
And if Nagbe continues his hot streak against Dallas with a goal or two, Porter said it could open the floodgates. He noted Portland were winless in their first five games last year before going on to win the regular season Western Conference title, while Dallas, who have two wins and a draw to start 2014, started the season on fire before a second-half swoon left them out of the playoffs altogether.
“We’re going to get a breakthrough very soon, and when we do it’s going to be scary,” Porter said. “… If I know this group well, they’re going to be up for this challenge to knock off the team at the top of the table. They seem to rise to challenges like that. And yet it’s going to be a tough game. It’s not how you start, it’s how you end. And Dallas knows that very well.”
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.