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Darlington Nagbe’s goal defies physics

On a day where thousands of people marched for science, Nagbe pushed its limits with his thunderbolt of a strike.

MLS: Vancouver Whitecaps FC at Portland Timbers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re like me, you’ve probably watched Darlington Nagbe’s goal against the Vancouver Whitecaps upwards of ten or twenty or fifty times by now. And if you’re like me, you’re still not remotely sick of it.

Everyone has known Nagbe has the ability to produce goals like this ever since his rookie season, in which he won Goal of the Year with his famous juggle-juggle-volley goal against Sporting KC. But those strikes have been few and far between over the past few seasons. 2013 was a high-water mark, still Nagbe’s most productive season both in front of goal and racking up views on Youtube with the quality of his strikes. But he only scored one such goal in MLS last season, a free kick against Vancouver, and kept fans waiting well into the season the year before that, his goal tally inflated by 3 goals in 2 games to end the year. 2014? 1 goal. So part of the excitement over this goal is just seeing Nagbe getting himself onto the score sheet more often early in the season. He has 2 goals and 3 assists from 7 games, well on his way to eclipsing his 1 goal, 5 assist season last year. It seemed to be coming, too, after Tim Melia denied him what probably would have been a Goal of the Year finalist had it gone in the week before.

But the other reason this goal excites me so much is that it makes absolutely no scientific sense. To be clear, my highest scientific accomplishment was passing the AP Physics exam, but after playing and watching soccer for 20 years, I think I have a decent sense of what someone should and should not be able to do on the field. Let’s break it down.

Nagbe receives the ball in a fairly dangerous area, pinched in from the left side. While he’s a threat, this still isn’t too big of a problem for Vancouver. Darren Mattocks is the only immediate outlet for Nagbe, with Diego Valeri and Dairon Asprilla isolated on the right hand side, Diego Chara and David Guzman still a good 20 yards behind the play, and Vytas still not in a position to stretch the back line on the left. Matias Laba and Cristian Techera move to close Nagbe down on both sides.

As he so often does, however, Nagbe wriggles free of both defenders, goes around Laba’s left, and continues to dribble towards the box. Kendall Waston extends himself to try to pressure him, which proves to be a mistake. Nagbe deflects the challenge with his low center of gravity and gets around him, too.

Again, this is exciting play for Nagbe, but not anything too out of the ordinary for him. He thrives on people trying to dive in on him and make a 1v1 tackle. And even though Nagbe has beaten three defenders, this still isn’t the worst position for Vancouver. He’s taken himself away from the space Vytas opened up on the left, and his only option seems to be to dump the ball off to Asprilla on his right. This is where things get weird.

This is the moment he plants his left foot before he shoots it with his right. He beat three defenders at the cost of taking him away from the middle and very far away from goal. He is just about level with the goalkeeper box at the end line and looks similarly level with the arc at the top of the box. Using standard line measurements (and the Pythagorean Theorem!), he’s got himself about 23-25 yards from the center of the goal at this spot. Now, take a look at this photo and ask yourself this: “If I was shooting this ball, where would I try to hit it?”

Generally speaking, when you’re kicking the ball with your laces or a combination of the top of your foot and your instep, the ball is going to go the direction your plant foot is pointing. Nagbe’s momentum is almost taking him towards the corner flag, so any shot is going to require him to rotate his entire body as he’s taking the shot to get it on target. The more you rotate your body, however, the more you’re usually taking away from the power of the shot. Your energy and motion isn’t solely going towards the ball. It’s also being spent turning your body. If I am shooting this ball, near post is the only option for a shot, and it isn’t even a great option. That’s still a pretty big pivot to make as I’m planting and going through my shooting motion, and David Ousted has the near post well-covered. He’s saving anything that comes at him from his left.

This is where the ball ends up hitting the underside of the crossbar. He shot it far post. HE WENT FAR POST. This is what that angle looks like seeing it just before the moment of contact.

That angle is utterly ridiculous. I don’t even know if I could even get the ball to that spot in the air with my body going away from goal like that, let alone generate the power and dip that Nagbe does in order to beat Ousted. Ousted is too slow in reacting to the shot, possibly because Tim Parker could be obstructing his view of the shot. But I think he’s mostly just surprised that Nagbe has 1) shot the ball from this spot and angle, 2) has decided to go far post, and 3) the shot is still moving as viciously as any other trademark Nagbe thunderbolt. It takes him completely off-guard. He plants with his weight shifted slightly towards his left, fully expecting any shot to go to his near post, and can’t shift backwards and to the right enough to get him in a position where he makes the save.

It’s inexact, rudimentary science, but the power Nagbe generates at such an insane angle of shot, fully rotating his body more than 90 degrees in order to direct the shot to the far post, is flabbergasting. It looks like it breaks the rules, and that’s why I can’t stop watching it.

Earned it, indeed.

All screen-grabs courtesy of MLS.