COLUMBUS, Ohio – To many of you, and many around the US men’s national team, the topic about to be discussed is a nothing burger. A stale old story with little relevance to their massive World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica at Lower.com Field on Wednesday night (7 pm ET | ESPN2, TUDN, Univision, ESPN+), a match that at least one player has acknowledged as a must-win game after Sunday’s 1-0 thumping at Panama.
Yet the location of Wednesday's matchup makes it an obvious time to again acknowledge an elephant in the room that has cropped up more than once in the year-plus since coach Gregg Berhalter’s last on-record remarks about it.
One of the finest US-eligible midfielders of the past decade will be in attendance at Columbus’ gorgeous, gleaming-new downtown venue. But he won’t be kitted out. He’ll be sitting next to his family, watching from the stands just like the rest of the 20,000 or so spectators as the United States continue their fight for a place at the Qatar 2022.
I’m talking about Darlington Nagbe, the three-time MLS Cup winner and 25-times-capped USMNT alumnus who, according to multiple reports (including my own), declined multiple call-ups in 2018 and 2019 to focus on his club duties and family life. And on Tuesday he said he hasn’t reconsidered, even as he continues to perform at a high level for the Columbus Crew with a skill set that looks perfect for the No. 8 role in Berhalter’s usual 4-3-3 formation.
“I haven’t thought about it at all. I’m at peace,” Nagbe, now 31, told reporters as his team prepares for Saturday’s visit from Inter Miami CF (6 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+). “I'm enjoying the time with my family. I’m exactly where I want to be, here in Columbus. I haven’t given much thought to it at all.”
That’s the most he’s said on the matter in quite a while, and those around him will tell you that he’s not the sort to open up much beyond that. As readily as his top performances draw the spotlight, Nagbe isn’t particularly comfortable in it, generally avoiding individual attention wherever possible.
End of story, right? I’m not so sure.
A possession-game security blanket and engine-room linchpin for title-winning sides in Portland, Atlanta and now the Crew, Nagbe possesses qualities that remain rare in the USMNT player pool. Born in Liberia and raised primarily in the Cleveland suburb of Lakewood, his attainment of full citizenship in 2015 was eagerly anticipated by USMNT staff and fans alike, and a few weeks later he earned his first cap in the team’s first qualifier of the 2018 World Cup cycle.
He was a regular across that ill-fated campaign and logged 84 minutes on that painful night in Couva, Trinidad, when dreams of going to Russia died. He’s made just one US appearance since, a friendly against Paraguay in March 2018. That December, fresh off an MLS Cup win with ATLUTD, he was left off Berhalter’s first roster in charge, the 2019 January camp.
“He’s a guy that was injured for a large portion of the season and we feel like it would be more beneficial for him to first get some rest,” said the coach at the time, “get a good, solid preseason with his club and build up his strength so he can have another good MLS season.”
Later that year, The Athletic’s Paul Tenorio reported that Nagbe declined participation in the 2019 Gold Cup and subsequent friendlies that September. In March 2020 Nagbe spoke of “the grind” of international duty in an appearance on the BSI (now called The Soccer Soup) Podcast, alluding to the long trips and uneven conditions of life on the road in Concacaf.
Nagbe kept performing at a very high level after his move to Columbus, anchoring their run to another MLS Cup, and Berhalter was asked about him in July of last year.
“I haven’t spoken to him specifically about that, but I feel that he knows there’s an open door for him if one day he decides to commit,” said the USMNT boss. “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.”
That more or less set the existing narrative, of a supremely talented player – one whose attributes are both important in Berhalter’s philosophy and rare in this player pool – who is wanted by the program, but just isn’t up for it. One who is, to use my own phrase from last year, “wired differently than most.”
Crew coach Caleb Porter, who has known Nagbe since he was a child and coached him at Akron University, Portland and now Columbus, pushed back on that idea when I asked him about it Tuesday.
“He played, what, 30 games for the national team? So it's not like he chose not to play with the national team – he played with the national team. It's just at this point in time, it was a different decision,” said Porter. “The guy's an unbelievable player. I think he's a winner, he’s shown that. But him not being on the national team right now, I don't think it's him being wired differently at all. I really don’t.
“I mean, you see him on the pitch. He wants to win. I think there's a myth on him being wired differently. And I would remind again, he's played with the national team in qualifying, played under Bruce [Arena] and Jurgen [Klinsmann] both.”
Porter said he hasn’t been privy to the discussions between Berhalter and Nagbe. It’s not clear whether there has been much of that sort of discussion or what the parties involved perceive “an open door” to mean. Conversations with others close to the situation give the impression of an impasse, both sides believing the ball is in the other’s court, waiting for first contact.
“No, not too much. I think in the past we may have spoken a little bit in passing but not too much,” Nagbe said of Berhalter in August 2019.
Darlington Nagbe dribbles in a September 2017 World Cup Qualifier against Costa Rica | Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports
Conventional wisdom says that players should be eager and unconditional in their desire to represent their country, and not many are publicly given “an open door” by a coach. That’s a compliment to Nagbe, who has won the trust and vocal admiration of Tata Martino, Frank de Boer and most every coach he’s worked with over the years.
The BSI hosts drew a parallel between Nagbe and Carlos Vela, an elite talent with an on-again, off-again relationship with Mexico’s national team that’s drawn comparisons to a telenovela. Even after periods of exile and strained communication, the LAFC star made a mostly triumphant return to El Tri for the 2018 World Cup, only to bow out again in the ensuing years and signal that his international career is done.
Nagbe has said far less about his own situation, so we have less to go by in gauging whether he might someday reconsider. And Berhalter may well feel content with current options in advanced midfield like Weston McKennie, Yunus Musah, Sebastian Lletget and Luca de la Torre. And that group may well prove itself capable of keeping the USMNT on track for passage through the Concacaf Octagonal.
Either way, as I watch Wednesday's game unfold in Columbus, I’ll still be wondering why the most gifted player of his generation isn't on the field.