Reading tea leaves: Portland’s Porter hire and Darlington Nagbe

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With Caleb Porter confirmed to take over Portland in December, you’re going to hear a lot about the former Akron coach’s experience with Darlington Nagbe (right), the former Zip who was taken number two overall pick in the 2011 SuperDraft. Odds are you won’t hear enough, though. The relationship between Portland’s new coach and their most talented player may prove the most important part of the Timbers’ new hire.

Porter coached Nagbe for three seasons (2008-2010), during which time Nagbe won a MAC Herman Trophy (the soccer Heisman) and an NCAA title. Taken with the first draft pick in Portland’s MLS history, Nagbe has become the quintessential Timbers’ player. Like his team, he’s young, full of promise, but also falling short of expectations.

Most of those expectations are his own. Talk to him and Nagbe will tell you he would like to be challenging double-digits in both goals and assists. That’s not happening. Having regained some potency  after slumping with the rest of this team, Nagbe is up to six goals on the year, though he’s still without an assist. As a rookie, Nagbe had three helpers to go with his two goals. You could argue that’s progress (particularly since assists are hard to come by this year), but it’s not what Nagbe envisions for himself.

Talent is another big part of the expectations on Nagbe. He’s Portland’s best player on the ball, and despite modest goal totals, he is probably the team’s biggest threat around the penalty area. His ability to threaten goal from distance is one of the few plus-weapons in the Timber arsenal, and for a team that’s often playing without the ball, his ability on transition Portland into attack is vital.

When you see those skills and look at what general manager Gavin Wilkinson has acquired around him, you see a Portland team that’s unlikely to make huge strides unless Nagbe makes a leap. Up and down the Timber team you see a series of players who not only are unlikely to be above-average players on their own, they’re players who may be best as complements in a team built around Nagbe. From Diego Chara and Jack Jewsbury playing behind him, to Frank Songo’o wide, to Kris Boyd or Danny Mwanga in front of his, none of these players are likely to challenge for All-Star slots, but they are players that can be utilized around a blossoming Nagbe. Fast forward to 2013 and it’s hard to see a Timber team that competes for the playoffs that doesn’t have Nagbe performing closer to his personal goals.

Perhaps that’s where Porter comes in. Porter certainly has an impressive track record independent of his time with Nagbe, but if you’re in the Timber front office and are trying to get your squad to perform to its potential, one of the questions you have to ask is “how do we get the most out of Darlington?” Having Caleb Porter coach him again is a pretty good hypothesis.

Because it’s hard to see Portland being a playoff contender without Nagbe being a fringe All-Star, Porter is going to be keenly concerned with Nagbe’s progress. One thing you could see immediately is a change of approach as it concerns Portland’s forwards. At Akron, Nagbe provided for the likes of Steve Zakuani, Teal Bunbury, and Darren Mattocks. One commonality among those players is speed. During his first two years in Portland, Nagbe’s been providing for Kenny Cooper and Kris Boyd. Nobody would mistake those No. 9s for burners.

To imply Porter and Nagbe will make-or-break each other’s time in Portland is far too simplistic, but they represent each others’ best chance of success. If Porter can tweak the Timberss approach to get the most out of Nagbe, he’ll be well on his way to making 2012 look like an aberration.