As part of a series leading up to the MLS is Back Tournament, ColumbusCrewSC.com examines key numbers and trends surrounding the players. In this edition, we take a closer look at midfielder Darlington Nagbe.
The midfielder didn't miss a single pass through the first 75 minutes of the Crew's 1-0 win over New York City FC, the defending Eastern Conference regular-season champions, as Nagbe ended the day by completing 56 of 59 total passes attempted.
Now, this is where it starts to get really interesting.
It is one thing to be the swinging balls out wide under no pressure, but 41 of those 59 total passes took place in the opponent's half. Of those 41 passes, Nagbe completed 39. But more importantly, what about balls into the final third?
Nagbe made his Crew debut with an astonishing 95-percent passing accuracy in the final third, leaving him second to none in Major League Soccer.
So what's the point? The midfielder was able to distribute effectively against a 10-man team. That's certainly not unheard of.
Where his importance lies is the impact he makes in Porter's style; play vertical if you can, but otherwise control the ball, and you control the game.
“Yeah, I’ve been just trying to link up the defense and the attack," Nagbe said when asked about how he defines his role. Now, with the MLS is Back Tournament set for a July 8 start date, the 29-year-old emphasized that building trust amongst his teammates is a key factor going forward.
"The guys have just trusted me with the ball, giving me the ball, and having confidence in me that I can get [the ball] to the right players in the right spots at the right time, so I’ll continue to do that and hopefully they continue to trust me,” Nagbe said.
Porter's comments after that win over NYCFC on March 1 laid out what is now obvious to Crew fans through the first two matches.
"I mean that’s what he brings, he’s a possession midfielder, he’s the link player, he’s the guy that everything is going to go through in the midfield and he’ll run the show and he’ll be on the ball more than anybody and he’ll help us keep rhythm and tempo."
As Porter said, Nagbe is the connecting piece and it has shown in the first two matches.
Now, one might think that's a result of NYCFC playing down a man, but look at the comparison to March 7's road match at Seattle Sounders FC.
The average position is very similar, with Nagbe and Artur occupying a central role and able to control the pace, help nullify transitions, and allow the outside backs to hug the sideline and open up pockets for core attacking pieces like Lucas Zelarayan and Gyasi Zardes, all while serving as the go-between.
The relationship between Nagbe and Artur continues to be paramount to the team's success for obvious reasons, and so far, so good, Nagbe said.
“It’s been great getting to play with Artur. Obviously, I’ve played against him in the past and I’ve known him a bit from there, but through pre-season, the first couple of games, it’s been great," explained Nagbe following training on Thursday.
"For me, [Artur is] a great midfielder, [has] great energy, a good touch on the ball, great passing range and obviously a great work rate, so hopefully the chemistry builds more and more.”
Concerning that element of trust Nagbe touched on, it appeared to be well-established in the opener against NYCFC, as he completed a game-high 12 passes with Afful, and completed 10 with both Valenzuela & Vito Wormgoor.
Speaking of those passes to Afful, the perfect example of Nagbe's distribution abilities lies in the below diagonal ball, which as you'll see, quickly shifts the point of attack before resulting in Zelarayan's game-winning goal.
As expected, the trend continued against Seattle with Nagbe completing a team-high eight passes with both defender Aboubacar Keita and midfielder Pedro Santos, but a close-second were Valenzuela and Afful (7), who are key pieces of the attack despite being outside backs. Additionally, Nagbe posted a team-high 89-percent passing accuracy and was the only Crew midfielder with more possessions gained than possessions lost.
In short, Nagbe is the connector who does not often miss a beat, and when he does, he makes up for it. With that, we look forward to seeing where he and the rest of the Crew pick up where they left off in a few weeks.