Sometimes there are no adjectives to describe the top midfielder in Major League Soccer. Because there’s so much he can do, even the best descriptions undermine the talent of Darlington Nagbe and what he means to the Columbus Crew.

Amidst a 2021 season saturated with wave after wave of momentum swings, Nagbe was the unchanging buoy that remained a constant, calming presence for the club.  

“I know sometimes (the media) don’t have words for him,” captain Jonathan Mensah said. “Same goes for me.

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“It’s just unbelievable to play alongside him and see what he brings into the team, game in and game out … We have seen what this team can do when we all stay healthy, especially in someone like Darlington.”

Playing his eleventh season in MLS, Nagbe produced arguably the best campaign of his professional career. Whereas other years had more goals and assists, his constant presence in a team pulled in all directions kept the club balanced.

Nagbe played in a team-high 33 league matches, which were all starts. His 2,910 minutes led the team, with goalkeeper Eloy Room finishing second with 2,700. Lucas Zelarayán was third with 2,626 – roughly three full games less than Nagbe.

“The Crew is a team that I’ve supported for a long time,” Nagbe said. “So, being able to perform for them and to win with them...then having another season with them and being able to perform and play every game, it’s definitely an honor, especially with the players we have and the staff we have.”

But his quality doesn’t rest solely on his ability to stay in the Starting XI every match. More importantly, Nagbe is unbelievable with what he can produce while on the ball.

For the second straight season, he led MLS in passing accuracy, finishing with an astounding 94.3% across his 33 appearances.

Since the beginning of 2011, his rookie year, Nagbe leads all players in passing accuracy for anyone who’s attempted at least 10,000 passes, per Opta. During that time, he’s successfully completed 89.89% of his passes. Osvaldo Alonso (89.47%) and Wil Trapp (87.37%) rank second and third, respectively. 

These aren’t just passes to fill a stat sheet; Nagbe consistently puts teammates in attacking opportunities.

The midfielder had 829 accurate forward passes this season, which was considerably more than second-place Zelarayán (713). Of Nagbe’s 22 key passes, five directly resulted in assists.

His ability to feel the game and be a calming presence is unparalleled for the Black & Gold. As further proof, his 79.41% dribbling success rate was the second-best in MLS this season, with only FC Dallas’ Ema Twumasi finishing higher (82%).

There are countless times in 2021 when Nagbe absorbed pressure and relieved the Crew. Whether it was a dribble on his own goal line to clear the ball or a pass that broke the opponent’s line, he was essential in the club’s management of each game.

Perhaps no match highlighted this more than the Campeones Cup final in September, when Nagbe was the best player on the pitch in a game that determined the best “champion” in North America.

In Columbus’ 2-0 win over Cruz Azul inside Lower.com Field, Nagbe completed 95.2% of his passes, which included an 88.9% accuracy in Cruz Azul territory. He also won seven of his duels as he guided the Black & Gold to their first international trophy.

In his post-match press conference, head coach Caleb Porter described Nagbe’s performance as “unbelievable.”

“The guy’s a winner; look at all the trophies he’s won,” Porter said. “We’ve won a lot together. I love him like a son. I don’t think there’s a better player in our league; I think he continues to be underrated. 

“You watch him today, that guy could play anywhere in the world. He’s a modern midfielder, he keeps the ball, defends, covers ground, surges out of midfield. Yeah, he was incredible today, absolutely incredible, and it’s because he’s a winner. He’s a winner and he’s quality. And it’s no coincidence that he’s won as many trophies as he has.”

And it’s no coincidence that the Crew is better off in 2022 with his presence back in the midfield. But whereas he routinely had to play alongside rotating players (Aidan Morris, Marlon Hairston, Perry Kitchen, etc.), Nagbe is expected to anchor the midfield with Artur, who missed 2021 due to injuries.

“Arty, in my opinion, is one of the best center mids in the league,” Nagbe said. “So, you’re not just adding another player. You’re adding one of the best. So, it only improves us with myself and the rest of the guys that are going to be in the midfield.”

Through his first two seasons with the Crew, Nagbe has become an essential part of the team’s playing style and Porter’s vision of his best squad. In 2022, that should only improve, assuming the team won’t have injuries plague the season again.

For Nagbe, that should produce more indescribable stats; For the rest of MLS, that’s a real problem no one’s been able to solve.

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