Darlington Nagbe's call into the US national team for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers against St. Vincent & the Grenadines and Trinidad & Tobago didn't happen in a vacuum.
Let's sum up:
- The US are in their worst in-CONCACAF run in decades, having gone winless in four straight home games vs. regional foes
- The US have out-shot only two of their last 10 opponents
- Nagbe is playing the best soccer of his career
The Liberian-born midfielder (and we can and will refer to him only as "midfielder" from now on, not "attacker" or "winger") has flourished over the past month in a full-time, central midfield role. He's been able to consistently win second balls, consistently be a nuisance in passing lanes, and consistently make the sort of "right place, right time" plays that a No. 8 really needs to make.
These were all questions at the start of October. Nagbe had been used primarily as a wide player with the Portland Timbers, flashing bits of breathtaking skill in between bouts of soul-crushing anonymity. He should be a better, more effective winger; he has speed on and off the ball, the ability to control the ball with his first touch that is, perhaps, unmatched in the US pool, and he is the most effective 1-v-1 player in MLS.
Yet he's never offered off-the-ball penetration from that spot, which is the first duty of any true winger. He prefers to drift toward the play rather than extend the field away from it, which is why some fans have felt that his move to the center is overude.
With that positional adjustment there have been more moments on the ball, as Ben Baer chronicled here on Thursday:
|Nagbe Passes/Touches Before and After Position Switch|
|Period||Touches Per 90||Passes Per 90|
Getting a guy who completes nearly 90 percent of his passes more chances to do just that was a season-changing idea from the Portland braintrust. Add in the fact that Nagbe led the league in chances created from open play, and it's a pretty good correlation/causality argument about how Portland went from winning just once in six to thier current five-game unbeaten run, a streak that has them on the precipice of a spot in the Western Conference Championship of the Audi 2015 MLS Cup Playoffs.
Chance creation is just one of the problems the current USMNT face, though. Another is the haphazard way Klinsmann has them shuttling the ball from back-to-front, an issue born of the tactical (and personnel) instability inherent in the current regime.
Klinsmann's ideal seems to be lining Kyle Beckerman up as a lone No. 6 in a diamond midfield, putting the possession initiation duties onto the shoulders of the RSL legend. But smart teams like Mexico, Costa Rica and Panama have consistently flooded that zone against lone holders, forcing Klinsmann to flatten out the diamond into more of a straight 4-4-2. That shift forces a disconnect between the midfield and backline, and now you're in longball country - unless Michael Bradley drops deep to help with initiation.
But when that happens, guess what? Now you've got your main midfield chance creator (Bradley) 50 yards from the forward line trying to play through a midfield in which he's at a numerical disadvantage.
Nagbe's presence, then, should facilitate a shift to the 4-3-3. Klinsmann can start Beckerman (or one of the other d-mids in the pool) as a No. 6, with Bradley and Nagbe as box-to-box runners also in central midfield. In theory this will cut down on midfield turnovers - that's the point of having three excellent passers in midfield, right? - while giving Beckerman protection against teams that try to overrun him.
It also puts two guys in central midfield who can carry the ball forward at pace. Some of the best US moments of late have come when Bradley has gotten the ball on his foot and has a head of steam, simply cutting out defenders on the dribble.
Nagbe can do the same thing, only faster. He covers ground like a rocketized gazelle:
I'm not saying that Nagbe is the one-stop shop for fixing all the US problems. He's not going to dribble an entire defense like that on the regular, and neither is Bradley, and neither is anyone else in the US pool (or anyone's pool, save for a full-strength Argentina).
But the threat of it, and Nagbe's security on the ball in completing useful passes, will force opposing defenses to collapse to him and subsequently open the flanks. The US have been suffocating from lack of space, and he should help them breathe.
A few more notes:
3. While Nagbe is an elite chance creator, he's not a creator of elite chances. Of the 121 open play chances he's created over the last two years, only three of them were "big" chances - chances that, by Opta's reckoning, should be put away. For some context: 12 of the 97 chances Diego Valeri has created in that time were big chances.
So anyone expecting him to carve up the midfield with Valderrama-style through-balls or Donovan-like lay-offs shouldn't be holding their breath. Nagbe's not that kind of player.
2. If Nagbe starts, and Bradley starts, and Klinsmann goes to the 4-3-3, that probably does not mean there's a starting midfield role for Jermaine Jones unless Klinsmann puts him or Bradley deep as the No. 6. Which is pretty much the definition of playing with fire.
1. All of the above analysis is moot if Nagbe is started on the flank in any lineup or formation. There's no guarantee Klinsmann is seeing (or wanting) the central midfield Nagbe. He could very well be calling the kid in to play on the wing.