After scoring a career-high nine goals in 2013, many believed that Portland midfielder Darlington Nagbe's one-goal output in 2014 was a disappointing drop off. While that certainly appears to be the case on the surface, Portland's struggles a season ago were due much more to issues at the back than they were to the play of Nagbe, who managed a career-best seven assists despite the drop in goal scoring.
After losing chief play maker Diego Valeri to an ACL tear in the last fixture of the '13 season, Portland has predicated its attacking efforts around the 24-year-old Nagbe in the early stages of the 2014 campaign, and he has been excellent thus far.
Nagbe has not recorded a goal yet this season, but he has notched one assist while playing a key creative role in attack. If you need evidence of Nagbe's threat as a goal scorer, look no further than the strike that earned him the 2011 Major League Soccer Goal of the Year.
There is much more to his game that could trouble Orlando City than goal scoring, though.
Prior to Portland's last match against FC Dallas, Nagbe was leading MLS in chances created, and he has dished out 11 key passes – a pass that leads to an attempt at goal without scoring, essentially an assist opportunity – through five matches (per WhoScored), further evidencing his importance to the Timbers. Nagbe's strength is derived from his speed as well as his ability as one of the league's most robust on-ball players, aptly holding off defenders and rarely giving the ball away cheaply.
While the OCSC back line – Brek Shea, in particular – will have its hands full defending Nagbe, the task of containing the focal point of Portland's attack will begin with the Lions' defensive midfielders, Amobi Okugo and Darwin Cerén.
Despite a few too many giveaways, Cerén has been capable in the defensive midfield for Orlando thus far in his three appearances, helping Okugo clog the attacking third and shield the central defenders in behind them. The young El Salvadoran will need to be sharp on Sunday evening, however, as his position on the left side of Orlando's midfield puts him in prime position to deal with Nagbe slicing in from Portland's right wing.
As Portland has been working around a number of injuries in the early season, primarily those of Valeri and holding midfielder Will Johnson, manager Caleb Porter has switched things up by implementing a 4-4-2 formation in each of the Timbers' last two matches. Nagbe has been lining up on the right wing in the attacking midfield, but functionally, he has been playing much more of a central role for Portland, as his heat maps from the Vancouver and FC Dallas matches show below.
Nagbe's heat map vs. Vancouver:
As you can see, despite being deployed on the right wing, Nagbe is not limited to that area at all. These heat maps show him making an impact all over the pitch, with a particular impact against Vancouver from the left wing, further illustrating his freedom of movement. As Andrew Marcinko noted in our preview, Nagbe loves to veer inside from his right wing position and get the ball into the red zone near the top of the 18-yard box.
Working in conjunction with Cerén, Okugo will have a big role to play in limiting Nagbe in this area. Playing as a true number six in Orlando's central midfield, Okugo has been very solid in this role for OCSC through its first five matches, patrolling the midfield and proving to be a reliable ball-winner, while also providing cover when Orlando City's fullbacks get forward up the flanks.
Okugo's defensive efforts don't garner much fanfare, but they are quietly very important for OCSC. He has also shown an ability to make effective passes to keep the Lions out of harm's way and play the ball forward for the attacking mids, which is important once the ball has been recovered from the opposition.
If the duo of Okugo and Cerén can work effectively in the double-pivot to control the midfield and keep Nagbe from running unimpeded at Orlando's central defensive pairing of Aurélien Collin and Seb Hines, life for the OCSC back line will be considerably easier on Sunday, and the Lions will have a chance to bring home three points from what is sure to be a hostile environment at Providence Park.