PORTLAND, Ore. – Darlington Nagbe has been a lot of things for the Portland Timbers this season.
He’s been tabbed as the club’s future after being selected with the No. 2 overall pick in this year’s MLS SuperDraft. He’s been the young phenom after starting 16 games in a crucial offensive role. He’s been the magician after he scored on a juggling, magic trick of a goal July 2 against Sporting Kansas City.
He’s also just a touch tired now that his soccer marathon is reaching its end.
Nagbe has been playing at a high level for more than a year, with his NCAA Championship season with Akron blending right into the Timbers' inaugural MLS campaign.
Despite the wear and tear, there's no denying that Nagbe’s rookie campaign has been a success, which was reflected in a recent fan vote in which he finished 10th in a list of the league’s top 24 players under 24 years of age.
“It’s been OK,” said the soft-spoken Nagbe after training on Wednesday. “You always think you can do better, but I feel like I’ve been OK so far.”
The statistics don’t tell the whole story with Nagbe.
He has a goal and two assists in 23 appearances so far this year, but his ability with the ball makes the native of Monrovia, Liberia – who was awarded the Hermann Trophy last fall as the nation’s top college player – a constant concern on the field.
“He can do the spectacular,” team captain Jack Jewsbury said. “You never know when that is going to come. He’s probably one of the most talented guys, younger players, I’ve ever played with. I think once he realizes how good he is, he’s going to make a huge impact – not that he hasn’t already.”
The spectacular came out July 2 when he took a punch out from SKC goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen, juggled it twice and fired a rocket into the back of the net – all without allowing the ball to hit the turf. It was the MLS Goal of the Week, honored as ESPN SportsCenter's top play, won four “Best of the Best” polls on SportsNation, and received more than 1.5 million views on YouTube.
Recently, however, Nagbe has hit a wall physically. After 12 straight starts from June to August, head coach John Spencer has scaled back the rookie’s playing time. He didn’t play in the Timbers' 2-1 win against Vancouver on Aug. 20 and has come on as a substitute in the last two matches.
“A lot of guys warned me this would happen,” Nagbe said of his recent battle with tired legs. “It’s been tough. You always want to be out there helping the team. But if the best way I can help them is coming off the bench, then I’m more than happy to do that.”
Jewsbury said it’s all part of becoming a professional, a task he feels Nagbe has excelled at.
“[College players] almost feel like they’ve been going for a year-and-a-half straight without a break,” the Portland captain said. “It’s a time in the season, though, whether it’s in a starting role or coming off the bench ... we’re going to need him.”