BEAVERTON, Ore. — No doubt, the results are getting old for the Portland Timbers and their fans.
Unfortunately for the second-year team with the worst record in Major League Soccer, the young players that form the foundation of Portland’s future won’t become seasoned veterans overnight.
Perhaps no player personifies the combination of high hopes and low production this season than Darlington Nagbe.
Yes, the second-year player is second on the team with three goals this season. But, despite playing in all but one MLS match (most of them as a starter), Nagbe hasn’t produced a goal or an assist since March 31, when he scored two terrific goals in a home loss to Real Salt Lake.
But general manager and interim head coach Gavin Wilkinson rejected the suggestion that Nagbe has struggled this season.
“We’re seeing improvements in Darlington’s game, and we’re happy with those improvements,” Wilkinson said on Friday. “I think everyone has always recognized that he’s a very talented player. It’s about the performance consistently now. But with him, just like any player, a lot of it is confidence and self belief.”
The soft-spoken Nagbe says he is still having fun, despite the ups and downs of this season, which has the Timbers carrying a five-match skid into a Sunday visit from FC Dallas.
“Obviously I’d like to score a little bit more. I feel like besides scoring I’ve been doing other things right,” Nagbe said. “But goals are what wins games.”
Goals and assists are how attacking players are measured.
Nagbe has played both forward and midfield, both on the wing and inside.
He is still learning the demands of various roles, but acknowledged that he sometimes needs to be more assertive.
“Just getting on the ball as much as I can is the biggest thing,” Nagbe said, describing one way he can jump start his growth. “Just going and being aggressive and more demanding the ball.”
He summed up his summer as learning how to be a better professional.
Wilkinson understands the expectations that he has placed on Nagbe and other young Timbers. He acknowledged that the decision to build a young core as the foundation for sustained success is one factor in the disappointing results this season. But the acting coach isn’t toning down his expectations — short-or long-term — for Nagbe and other young Timbers.
“I think he has a big future ahead of him. I think a lot of our young players do,” Wilkinson said. “We need to get the balance right between seniority and inexperience. Do we need a few more leaders on the team? I think so.”
That balance is unlikely to come this season, of course. But Wilkinson said that imbalance is no reason to lower expectations going forward.
“Expectations from the fans and the crowd are very, very healthy. We want that,” Wilkinson said. “What I would say (to fans) is: ‘Have a level of patience with a high level of expectation. And understand that we have some quality pieces.’ “