COLUMBUS, Ohio – Darlington Nagbe isn’t one for the spotlight. On the field, he is the consummate connector, ranking first in pass completion percentage (93.6%) out of the 164 players with at least 1,000 attempts this season. Off the field, he’s similarly eager to give his teammates the glory.
Asked if he takes pride in reaching his fourth MLS Cup final (on three different teams) as a pass-first player who doesn’t need to get on the scoresheet to help his teams win, the veteran Columbus Crew midfielder stayed true to form.
“I think the thing for me personally is I've been a part of great teams – great teams, great coaches, great organizations. Just happy to have been a part of it and play my part,” said Nagbe in Columbus’ matchday-2 presser ahead of Saturday's final at home vs. LAFC (4 pm ET | Apple TV - Free). “I've always been a team-first guy, and that’s put me where I am today.”
Luckily for anybody who truly wants to understand the magnitude of his ability, teammates both old and new have sounded off all week on his gifted play.
Former Portland Timbers star and current MLS Season Pass commentator Diego Valeri got the party started the day after the Crew's dramatic Eastern Conference Final victory, penning a public letter to Nagbe that highlighted his former teammate's impact on the Timbers’ success (which included an MLS Cup in 2015).
“I met him 10 years ago, and he was a dazzling right winger with a scoring touch,” read Valeri's note. “Today, he’s a midfielder who understands everything his team needs. Because this is ‘his’ team.”
“... This profession has its gray clouds. Nagbe is a sun. He grows on the field, his smile shines on the stage, holding a trophy in his hands, as he did in every club he played for. If I ever have grandchildren and they ask about soccer in the United States, I will tell them that I played with him.”
Tesho Akindele, a former MLS Rookie of the Year who amassed over 230 appearances during his nine-year MLS career, took the plaudits a step further, posting to Twitter that “Darlington has to be in the conversation for best-ever MLS player.”
A locker room light
In the run-up to MLS Cup, Nagbe's current teammates have been equally effusive. And while they readily acknowledge his key influence on the pitch, it may be his demeanor off it that inspires most.
“He has a special aura of calmness that makes you want to listen to him, even though he doesn't have the loudest voice,” said Crew defender Malte Amundsen before the team’s practice on Thursday. “His voice is being listened to a lot. And I think by his calmness, by his experience, but also his person as well as his talent on the pitch, it's impossible not to listen to him and not to want to know, ‘What can I learn from this guy?’
“This is what I do when he speaks, [thinking] ‘Man, I may be able to take something away and learn something about how he sees life as well as soccer.’
When it comes to learning from Nagbe, none may have benefited more than midfield partner Aidan Morris, the 22-year-old homegrown whose breakout season included an MLS All-Star Game and a US men's national team call-up at this year's Concacaf Gold Cup. At 92.5%, Morris’ pass-completion rate is second only to Nagbe’s among players with over 1,000 attempts, and his ability to read the game and pick off passes mirrors that of his veteran teammate, too.
“Him as a person is the thing that stands out to me the most, just always a smile on his face,” said Morris at a press conference on Tuesday. “He's always someone everyone wants to be surrounded by, just good energy all the time. And then, on the field, he's just so calm, never seems under pressure, relaxed, always has a plan. Such a guy you can look towards and leads by example, very quiet, but always does the right things on and off the field.”
In a cruel twist of irony, Morris’ first taste of MLS Cup came in 2020 as a last-minute replacement for Nagbe, who’d been ruled out just days before with a positive COVID-19 test. Morris played a starring role as the Crew shocked then-defending champions Seattle Sounders FC, 3-0.
His first call after lifting the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy? His midfield mentor, of course.
“[Nagbe] was the first person I called,” said Morris. “I called him, and, you know, regardless of him sitting in his basement, watching the game, not even with his family, he still had the same smile on his face, and he was just so happy for everyone there. I think that speaks volumes to the person he is.
“You watch him around the facility, everyone flocks to him. They want to be around him. They want to spend time with him. Because he just makes them feel appreciated. And he's just a perfect athlete.”
This time around, Morris should get to play side-by-side with Nagbe in a potential storybook resolution to 2020’s bittersweet triumph.
“Not to be able to play in that final game was a disappointment,” acknowledged Nagbe. “But I think after the result, the way it went and how well Aidan played, I think I just forgot about it. But now I’m looking forward to this year, being able to play alongside him and how much he's grown as a player, as a person, and his leadership as well. … It's just the beginning for him.”
Face of the team
Despite already reaching three MLS Cups (and his team winning all of them), Saturday’s showdown at Lower.com Field figures to be extra special – not only because Nagbe should be able to start this one, but because he’d be doing so at a packed-out stadium in front of his home region's fans.
After leaving his birth nation of Liberia as an infant during the First Liberian War, Nagbe spent his early childhood in Europe as his family followed his dad’s professional career through France, Greece and Switzerland. At age 11, the family settled just outside of Cleveland, and Nagbe stayed in the area for college, playing under Caleb Porter (who later coached him in Portland) with the Akron Zips.
That makes the Crew his hometown team and the chance to lift silverware in front of the fans, who helped save the club from relocation via grassroots advocacy in 2019, all the more special.
“Obviously everyone knows where I'm from. I grew up in the Cleveland area, so to be here and be the captain of the team and represent the team, it's a huge honor,” said Nagbe, who was visibly emotional after knocking off arch-rivals FC Cincinnati in the Eastern Conference Final. “Now hosting MLS Cup will just continue to grow the game here in Columbus and in Ohio.”
In order for his team to be successful against LAFC and their vaunted counterattack led by Dénis Bouanga, Nagbe’s near-supernatural ability to keep the ball will be more crucial than ever.
“You know you can find him,” said Amundsen of Nagbe’s role as a pressure-release valve for the team. “He will shield the ball, he will protect the ball, he will distribute it … When you find the little storms throughout the game, which you do, then players like him that are confident, that are strong on the ball, it’s so valuable.”
Julian Gressel, Nagbe’s Crew teammate who lifted an MLS Cup alongside him with Atlanta United in 2018, echoes that sentiment, particularly on a Wilfried Nancy-coached team that led the league in possession through a dogmatic build-from-the-back approach.
“He is so important. He is this team. He's the captain,” said Gressel. “... I think Wilfried obviously sees him as the face of this team, and that's well deserved. He's been here. He's from here. And it's all that where, you know, those [decisions] are no-brainers.”