ST. LOUIS – For years, a vocal contingent of US national team fans have been eagerly seeking the sight of Darlington Nagbe in a US national team jersey, and on Friday night at Busch Stadium, they finally got their wish.
But the supporters' maddening wait was nothing compared to that of the player himself. The Portland Timbers' Liberian-born star spent interminable years navigating the path to full American citizenship, watching as his college and pro teammates went off on international duty and hoping that such a moment would be his someday.
So when he finally trotted on to the converted baseball field in downtown St. Louis to make his debut in the final stages of the USMNT's 6-1 thumping of St. Vincent & the Grenadines, a broad grin spread across Nagbe's face – despite his best efforts to restrain it.
“I was trying to respect the opponent and not too smile too much coming into the game,” he told reporters afterwards, “but I just couldn't hold it back. It just felt great to get out there and I'm happy that we won the game.
“It was definitely complete happiness.”
Playing as a pinched midfielder on the USMNT right, Nagbe got plenty of touches against the bunkered Vincentians and nearly carved out an assist to go with his first cap.
“I came here and everyone just kind of let me hop right in and let me do my own thing and get used to everyone,” he said. “They just told me to come in here and just do what I do, and get on the ball … getting on the ball, getting touches but at the same time, switch it up a little bit and accelerate the game. I'm looking forward to moving ahead and playing with these guys more.”
It was a promising start given that he'd only taken part in two full training sessions thanks to Portland's playoff action over the weekend, and a tantalizing glimpse at what one of the most skilful players in MLS could bring to the USMNT.
“You can see right away that he has an ease, and a comfort on the ball,” said captain Michael Bradley. “Playing tilted off to the right, he's not going to be a guy that just stays out wide. He's going to come inside, he's going to find little gaps between the midfielders and defenders, and I think those are good things.”
Coach Jurgen Klinsmann was positive about his newest recruit, albeit cautiously so.
“With Darlington Nagbe, we have a player that we observe and follow for two, three years. We were waiting for that opportunity,” he said. “He got now finally his eligibility, his American citizenship. He has a wonderful ball control, technically very gifted.
“But here on the international level, again it's another different kind of a challenge. And so we are glad to have him now with us, but it's also there that we need to give him time and opportunities to grow in this group.”
Nagbe said his phone was buzzing with messages of support when he returned to the locker room – “mom, wife, family and then the coaches I've had in the past and friends from back in the day” – and admitted that a long and frustrating journey had ended in joy.
“Especially when you know something like this is waiting at the end, it was definitely a tough wait – just waiting, not too sure when it was going to happen,” he said.
Now Nagbe will seek another leap: From curious newbie to one of Klinsmann's regular starters.
“From the moment I came in, [Klinsmann] tried to make me feel comfortable,” he said. “He just let me know to go out there and mesh with the guys, have fun and everything else will fall into place, and that's what I'm trying to do.”