One of the key cogs behind Columbus Crew SC's fast start to 2020, Darlington Nagbe continues to receive kudos for his efforts in central midfield.
Normally it's for his ball retention -- he's 2nd in MLS in passes completed (388) and 1st in completion percentage (94.4%, min. 400 minutes) -- or his recent strike that is immediately a contender for goal of the season. The midfield maestro has certainly impressed Philadelphia Union head coach Jim Curtin ahead of the Crew facing Philly on Wednesday (7:30 pm ET | MLS Live on ESPN+ in US, DAZN in Canada).
GOAL: Darlington Nagbe, Columbus Crew - 81st minute
“He’s probably the best midfielder our country has in the United States," Curtin told reporters on a virtual press conference Tuesday. "He just doesn’t lose the ball."
So how will the Union plan to stop the incredibly press-resistant Nagbe? It won't be easy.
In preparing for the game, Curtin and his staff have instructed the players not to dive in with reckless abandon. Nagbe is too difficult to corral in space, leading to a domino effect as defenders slide to occupy space Nagbe is breaking into. For the Union, it's about limiting Nagbe's opportunities to get on the ball, break lines and create space for the likes of Lucas Zelarayan and other Crew attackers.
“You want to do a lot before he gets on the ball," Curtin said. "Once he gets on the ball, it’s too late. Then it’s survival mode, you want to make sure he passes sideways or backwards. That’s a success.”
The Crew have dropped points in two consecutive matches, losing 1-0 to NYCFC then laboring to a scoreless draw against FC Cincinnati. Head coach Caleb Porter, perhaps a little bit of both in bemoaning cautious tactics against them in recent weeks while praising the Union's entertaining high-pressing system, said he's looking forward to the match because the Union will be adventurous against Columbus.
Curtin appreciated the kind words and reciprocated, highlighting the Crew's defensive prowess. He said while the Crew attack gets a lot of headlines, he's been impressed by the fact that Columbus have conceded just two goals in eight regular-season matches this year, easily the best in MLS.
Of course, the Union are still confident ahead of Wednesday's match between two of the East's top teams.
“It’s two teams that are different, but we do some things alike," Curtin pointed out. "Right now, the most important thing we’re both doing, we’re not losing.”