After his goal on July 2 received 1.5 million hits on YouTube and won ESPN’s Best of the Best, one might think that Darlington Nagbe has become the most popular guy in Portland.
Too bad he doesn’t hit the town enough to notice the attention.
“I’m not a guy that’s out and around too much,” said Nagbe, 21, who would rather spend free time at home watching movies with his college sweetheart, Felicia Houtz, to whom he recently proposed. “I get recognized here and there, but nothing too major. ... I definitely don’t get recognized as much as other guys, so it’s been good.”
Even if Nagbe, who was this year’s No. 2 overall pick in the MLS SuperDraft and last year’s Hermann Trophy winner as the nation’s best collegiate player, prefers to avoid the spotlight and downplay the accolades, it hasn’t stopped the rest of Timber nation from reveling in his potential.
“[Portland coach John] Spencer said he’s a future superstar,” said Timbers broadcaster John Strong, whose call on the goal went viral with the video. “He’s dangerous, creative and they want him involved in the build-up. We’ve only seen bits and pieces of what he’s capable of.”
Nagbe, who last month famously controlled a failed Sporting KC clearance off a corner with two right-footed touches before nonchalantly rocketing a volley across goal into the top corner, picked a heck of a way to score his first MLS goal.
“I joked with him after the game that taking two touches before scoring a goal like that was real good for me, too, because it helped me [catch up to the play and] get the call right,” Strong said.
Mike Levitt's Rookie of the Year Rankings
1. Perry Kitchen
The 19-year-old has been flat-out impressive while starting the past 16 games for DC. The fact that United have only lost once in their past eight games says plenty about his impact.
2. C.J. Sapong
The bottom line is that Sapong has been a beast for surging SKC. Though his goal tally (three) still sits in second place among rookies (Will Bruin has four), Sapong leads in points when you consider his four assists. The big, imposing, striker was an integral part of SKC’s MLS season-best 14 game unbeaten streak.
3. Darlington Nagbe
True, Nagbe has only scored once, but everyone from the casual sports fan to the most die-hard MLS supporter still talks about his goal. True, the Timbers, in seventh place in the West, are on the outside looking in, but few rookies have been as integral to their team’s attack as Nagbe.
4. Zarek Valentin
|Quietly, Valentin has made a case as the most influential rookie starting defender in the league, notching 17 starts in the team’s last 18 games. While other rookie defenders throughout the league have roles as important, none of their teams have a goal differential as good as Chivas’ plus-4.|
Portland assistant coach Amos Magee claims the best is yet to come for Nagbe, who he said still hasn’t fully recovered from sports hernia surgery in March. Though Nagbe was able to get back into action a month later, Magee said the injury takes up to five months to fully heal.
“I don’t think he’s at the level he wants to be and he’s still producing for us,” said Magee about Nagbe, who has yet to play a full 90 minutes despite starting 14 of his team’s last 16 matches. “His first touch is pretty spectacular and that gives him that bit of extra space to put him in good positions. His game is about balance and quickness. To still be able to break down defenses at this level, that stands out.”
Caleb Porter, Nagbe’s coach at the University of Akron, had seven members of his 2010 College Cup-winning team drafted into MLS, but thinks Nagbe may be the most talented player he’s ever coached.
“In terms of how easy he makes it look, Darlington will go down as one of the most special,” said Porter, who also coached the Seattle Sounders' Steve Zakuani and Sporting Kansas City's Teal Bunbury, two of Nagbe’s closest friends. “What makes him so special is he’s so humble despite doing stuff I’ve not seen any college player do. … You’d almost like to see him have more edge, a bit more pizzazz. I don’t think he knows how good he is.”
The Liberian-born forward-turned-winger, who immigrated to the Cleveland area when he was 11, said that just like any rookie, he has plenty to work on. Nagbe’s particular instructions from the coaching staff, however, aren’t usually reserved for first-year professionals.
“Coach tells me to take more risks and have confidence in myself to go at guys more because they know if I go at a guy, I can beat him,” said Nagbe, whose father, Joe, was a former captain of the Liberia national team and played professionally in France, Switzerland and Greece.
Nagbe attributes much of his technical flair to that international upbringing, recalling that he often had a ball at his feet wherever he went.
“There it’s different," Nagbe said. "You play every day in streets—it didn’t matter where. You just went out there whenever you made time. “Here, everything is more organized. … The most important part is to have fun no matter the competition or the time of day.”
Though Nagbe is soft-spoken and may come across as shy to outsiders, he is a family man who has close relationships with his brother, two sisters and mother.
Those that know him best call him gregarious and a jokester.
“He’s a soccer junkie,” Porter said. “All he needs is his family, his fiancée and a soccer ball. He seems quiet, but he comes out of shell once he’s comfortable with you and is hilarious. He’s the best impressionist I’ve ever seen. He could do every guy on the team, and even did me. I don’t know if he picks up on mannerisms because he’s so quiet and always watching others, but he had the locker room rolling.”