Creativity -- It's a word you hear a lot when discussion and debates about the United States men's national team occur. What does it actually mean in a soccer sense, though?
Unlike in the world of art or music where creativity is about standing out and being brash, being creative in soccer is more about efficiency. Creating opportunities for your teammates any and every way you possibly can. It can be flashy or nondescript, just as long as it gets the job done.
The national team has struggled in this aspect for many years. During the Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley years, the team relied almost solely on Landon Donovan to create opportunities for other players when he himself wasn't taking the chances. Since his retirement, the brunt of those responsibilities has fallen on Michael Bradley.
The U.S. captain is a fine soccer player. His technical ability and an eye for a pass are both qualities that make him the logical choice to take over as the team's main creator. However, that's just not a role he's comfortable playing in any team. As a box-to-box midfielder he can change any match he plays in but when he's forced to push up, it becomes obvious he's out of his comfort zone on the field.
Enter Darlington Nagbe. The Liberia-born midfielder gained his U.S. citizenship in September 2015 and made his USMNT debut two months later. He's always been known as a highly talented player in MLS circles. One of the most technical players in the league with the potential to become a superstar. At 25 years old he's never quite lived up to those expectations but he's carved himself a place among the best midfielders in the league.
His performance against the Vancouver Whitecaps on Saturday is a prime example of the creative force Nagbe can be to any team he plays on and a sample of what type of creativity he could bring to the USMNT.
Despite his team losing 2-1, WhoScored.com gave Nagbe a match-best 8.6 player rating. This was thanks to his 89% pass percentage (53 of 59 completed), two key passes, and one assist. Not only are his passing statistics phenomenal, but his nine dribbles completed on the day were as many as the Whitecaps had as a whole team.
Here's a look at his assist on the Timbers' only goal of the match:
His quick and crisp movements coupled with his precise passing allows for a beautiful one-two combination with the target striker freeing him for another easy pass in the box for the assist.
Nagbe coming from a deep position and penetrating the opposing defense is a relatively new tool in his arsenal. The Timbers made the switch last season to shift Nagbe deeper into the midfielder and let him operate as a two-way player. That decision changed their season and propelled them to win MLS Cup. It's continuing to pay dividends this season.
Another example of his usefulness in the midfield is his ability to transition possession from the defensive box all the way to the attacking end in the blink of an eye. Here's a look at one of his key passes:
While this isn't the hardest of passes to make, it's the hard fought run that is what's impressive on this chance. It takes the Timbers around 7 seconds to go from near their own end line to getting a shot on goal. This is in large part due to Nagbe's incisive and direct run through the gut of the Whitecaps' formation.
He usually makes are least one of these box-to-box runs with possession a match. He's effective in the slow build-up play as his assist earlier in the match showed but can also destroy teams on the counter-attack as this proves.
Most of his creation comes from the middle of the field but his versatility as an attacker also allows him to drift out wide from time to time. He has the ability to shift from a calculated central figure to a dynamic winger in mere seconds. This spectacular chance created shows exactly what he's capable of in this area of the field:
This was a truly masterful performance from Nagbe in a losing effort. He created chances, beat players on the dribble, and even led his team in defensive actions (tackles, blocks, interceptions, clearances, and recoveries) with 19. It was an all-around brilliant match and one that should catch the eye of Jurgen Klinsmann.
He doesn't have many tricks or skills up his sleeve. Nor does he make 60-yard Andrea Pirlo passes that make your jaw drop. Nagbe simply uses his superb technique and incredibly high soccer IQ to create for his teammates.
The USMNT have very few players who can create chances on a consistent basis. The USMNT have exactly one player who can create chances no matter where he is deployed in the formation. That is Darlington Nagbe.
If Klinsmann wants to get the most out of his best players, he needs to find a spot in his starting lineup for Nagbe to work his magic whether it be on the wing or in the middle of the field.