Columbus Crew SC were comfortable without being dominant in their 1-0 win over Atlanta United on Tuesday night; they controlled the game but failed to build on their early lead and had to hang on a bit at the end, perhaps unsurprisingly given that they’d already clinched advancement to the MLS is Back Tournament’s knockout stages.
Even when they’re not at their best, however, you can set your clock by at least one aspect of the 2020 Crew so far: Darlington Nagbe is going to keep it exceedingly tidy in central midfield.
Some look at this map and these stats and see a bunch of square balls and back passes, rather than an exemplary engine-room dynamo doing what he does better than just about anyone in MLS. So for them I’ll first point out just how much his former team in Atlanta are missing him, and then note what one of Nagbe’s Crew teammates, Ghanaian international and World Cup veteran Harrison Afful, said about him after the match:
“If we talk about Darlington, I think we’re not going to leave here. He’s on a different level. I mean, he makes the game easier for us. Whenever we are in trouble, we make sure we find him and it makes things easier.”
Anyone who follows me on Twitter can attest that I find Nagbe an enduringly fascinating character. His skillset — the technical excellence, that fluid comfort on the ball, the unflappable composure and high soccer IQ — is rare among MLS players, and downright unicorn-like among US players in MLS. It took years for his coaches to figure out the best way to deploy him at the professional level but once he found his lane, he’s owned it.
He’s also pretty clearly wired differently than most, preferring the home comforts of his native Ohio to the bright lights and hype of Atlanta United and turning down multiple US national team call-ups over the past few years in order to spend more time with his family. His last competitive match for the USMNT was the timeless fiasco of Couva on that fateful October night in Trinidad & Tobago in 2017, and it might just stay that way.
And yet. Nagbe is so unique, so effective at his particular niche on the pitch, that he essentially retains a standing invitation to return to the fold and represent his country when and if he’s ready. That was the upshot, in so many words, of Gregg Berhalter’s substantial discussion of him in the USMNT head coach’s roundtable on Tuesday afternoon.
“I haven’t spoken to him [Nagbe] specifically about that, but I feel that he knows there’s an open door for him if one day he decides to commit,” said Berhalter of the Crew’s smooth operator. “It is a commitment. It’s not for everyone. There’s a lot of travel involved, you are away from your family. When you think about a World Cup, being away, and Gold Cups in the summer. So I can understand him having that point of view of not wanting to leave his family. It isn’t for everyone, but I think he also knows that it is an open door for him.”
There are those who feel that Nagbe isn’t worth all this, that he’s simply too flaky, that representing your country with distinction requires sterner stuff. There are also those who remember his share of culpability for the Couva disaster and are ready to move on for that reason alone. It’s striking, though, that Berhalter — himself a highly decorated US international in his day — is not one of them.
He does need Nagbe to be all in, however.
“I think he'd fit in well to what we do,” said Berhalter. “I think there's elements of this game that we could even take to the next level. But it's also something where you're playing in these games, and these are tough games. When you're talking about [World Cup] qualifying, these games are difficult, and you need players that are committed to it. If there's hesitation by him I just, I would worry what that would do to the performance. So he has to be ready for it.”
Watching Nagbe thrive across three different club situations in Portland, Atlanta and Columbus does prompt some tantalizing projections about his usefulness in the current USMNT setup. He could prove to be a force multiplier for the likes of Weston McKennie and Christian Pulisic just as he has for Diego Valeri and Josef Martinez and Lucas Zelarayan. He might be the rug that ties the whole room together just in time for the road to Qatar 2022.
He just has to want it.
“We can push him,” said Berhalter, “but it needs it needs to be something that he says, ‘OK this is what I really want, my goal is to play in a World Cup. I’ve won MLS Cups with multiple teams and I've been an All-Star and I want to play in a World Cup. I missed out on the opportunity in 2018 and this is something I want to do.’
“It's a great accomplishment to play in a World Cup, not too many players get to do that. So it's going to be partly up to him and his family deciding that, that's what we really want to commit to.”
You might consider this situation a great example of how life isn’t fair — plenty of players with less natural talent than Nagbe have a much more urgent desire to represent their country, and he’s neither the first nor last athlete to be rare enough to merit special treatment. It’s also an illustration of how tricky the job of a national-team coach can be.
Will Nagbe reverse course? For now we’ll all have to watch, wait, and if you're Gregg Berhalter or most USMNT fans, hope.