LOS ANGELES – Darlington Nagbe couldn't turn down the chance to reunite with Caleb Porter, the coach with whom he's enjoyed so much success, but Columbus Crew SC offered a perfect fit beyond that.
The 29-year-old midfielder is a family man, a homebody, so returning to Ohio was enticing. Now, he's hoping to make the most of his latest MLS chapter as the Crew head into their second season of the post-Gregg Berhalter era.
“I'd say it was hard leaving the guys and my teammates and the club,” said Nagbe, who last month was traded from Atlanta for a shade over $1 million in allocation money. “But it was a chance to go home and play in front of family and friends. For my family to be able to see [me], the grandparents and my kids and all that stuff, it kind of took over everything else.”
It's a strong fit on the field, too. Porter, who last season guided the Crew to a 10th-place finish in the Eastern Conference, has usually gotten the best from Nagbe, whom he coached to an NCAA title at Akron in 2010. Porter then coached the midfielder at the Portland Timbers, where they won an MLS Cup in 2015.
Caleb Porter (above) is entering his second season as the Crew's head coach | USA Today Sports
Their relationship is built on contrasts, with Porter bringing the intensity and little seeming to ruffle Nagbe.
“I think we're completely different people,” said Nagbe, who won an MLS Cup with Atlanta in 2018 after spending his first seven professional seasons in Portland. “I think opposites kind of attract at times, and I'm more a laid-back and go-with-the-flow type of guy, and he's more about getting it done and keeping everyone on track. I think that's good for me, in general, and I think just being successful in college, that's just our bond, and then at the professional level.”
That relationship could now pay off in Columbus, a club that won MLS Cup in 2008.
“He had a lot to do [with me joining the Crew],” Nagbe said. “He's someone I enjoy playing for, that I've been successful with, so I'm hoping we create something special in Columbus. I think it's the right time, with the direction to club is going in.”
Porter and general manager Tim Bezbatchenko, an architect of Toronto FC's success, are looking to build an attractive, attacking side. Nagbe should be key in providing the midfield foundation alongside Wil Trapp, Lucas Zelarayan, Pedro Santos and others.
Nagbe, who was born in Liberia but raised largely outside of Cleveland, was a No. 10 in college, where he won the 2010 MAC Hermann Trophy, and early in his pro career. As his career has evolved, he became one of the league's finest box-to-box midfielders.
“Darlington is a modern midfielder and he’s going to be part of a modern system," Porter told MLSsoccer.com after the deal was done. "The top clubs in the world dictate the game with the ball, but that's not just what they do. Darlington is the type of player that will fit into the evolution that we're making. We’ll control games with the ball, we want to push towards being a team that dictates the game in the front half and counter-presses.”
Darlington Nagbe (above) was previously coached by Caleb Porter in Portland | USA Today Sports
Nagbe understands his strengths and his limitations, having scored just six goals across the last four seasons.
“I think possession is probably one of my biggest strengths,” Nagbe said. “You know, get on the ball, get touches, help to dictate the tempo of the game, get my playmaker the ball, and things like that. Kind of the bigger picture of the team.”
The primary criticism of his game has been that he's not taken greater initiative, that he has the ability to carry a team on his back but has shied away from doing so.
“But that's not who I am as a player,” Nagbe said. “I think everyone's entitled to their opinions, which I respect, but it's just not me.”
And don't expect to see him with the US men’s national team. He made 14 of his 25 international appearances during 2017, but hasn't been part of the group since Berhalter took charge a year ago.
“I haven't had any conversations with Gregg since the last time we spoke,” he said. “I made it clear to him that it has nothing to do with soccer or the game. I think my not being involved with the national team is just me wanting to be home with my family more. Simple as that. I haven't thought about it at all."