Darlington Nagbe - Portland Timbers - action

Looking to regroup after missing the MLS Cup Playoffs last year, Portland Timbers head coach Caleb Porter made it clear that to get the Timbers back to the heights that were expected, he needed more goal production from his wing positions this season.

With this aim in mind, he and his staff made a big decision: after often utilizing Darlington Nagbe in central and right midfield roles over the past couple of seasons, they decided to play him as a left winger in their 4-2-3-1 formation.

So far Portland have been rewarded. Before falling to Columbus Crew SC, while Nagbe was on international duty with the US national team playing on the left wing, the Timbers began their season with three straight wins. Nagbe started on Portland’s left for each of these wins — including a five-goal outburst against Minnesota United FC in their season opener.

So what is it exactly that puts additional pressure on opponents when Nagbe is in this position?

As a right-footed player starting with the ball on the left, Nagbe naturally drifts inward and towards the goal as he moves up field. And “it’s not rocket science,” Porter told MLSsoccer.com over the phone this week, that no defender wants to see a technical player like Nagbe charging forward, entering the final third with the ball on their dominant foot.

Noting Nagbe’s consistent ability to “free himself up,” and the fact that “when you put him in tight spaces, he [always] finds a way out,” Portland saw this tendency as a great way to create the exact situation described just above. Porter went on to explain that as soon as Nagbe is able to “squirm out” he will already be darting toward goal, given his right-footed touches and quickly asking all sorts of questions of defenders, as seen below.

If the above sequence were to unfold on the right side however, Nagbe would likely veer to the right — away from goal and towards a corner flag. The Timbers might get a cross in that situation, but if having him drift inside is more dangerous than a potential cross.

Nagbe’s dynamic changes of pace that free himself to go forward will continue to be a problem for opponents as it was last season. But this year, as he will be driving towards goal, Portland’s attack will be that much more threatening.

Making them even more dangerous in the final third, Portland gains an additional attacking dimension with Nagbe on the left. With the ball at Nagbe’s feet, the Timbers have an extra option as they look to find their way through for a chance on goal.

If Nagbe were on the right or even central, he would generally be taking different angles on the dribble than he does from wide left, as seen below.

He can also play a simple pass that sets a dangerous possession in motion for the Timbers, as seen below.

But because he has the ball on his favorite right foot and coming inward, the defense has to respect to respect a third option: Nagbe shooting.

The sequence below would not be nearly as promising had Nagbe come in from the right.

“The more he gets in a positions where he could shoot," said Porter, "the more aggressive he plays.”

Nagbe has yet to score this season, though he does have two assists. But an aggressive and attack-minded Nagbe can not only create an uptick in his offensive production, it will open up the whole game for his teammates — and indeed it already has.

If that continues, the Timbers will be a serious threat for the Supporters' Shield.