CARSON, Calif. – You have to start with the goal.
It was July 2 of last year, and Darlington Nagbe was still just that rookie with subtle skills, lots of potential and very little production. He’d earned the praise of Portland Timbers head coach John Spencer for his humble demeanor, his eye for the last pass and his willingness to work.
But he hadn’t had his moment yet.
Then Sporting Kansas City’s Jimmy Nielsen punched out a Jack Jewsbury free kick, and Nagbe ... well, you know exactly what Nagbe did. He juggled, he lined it up, and he scorched a rocket to the upper 90, a moment of brilliance that was canonized as 2011’s MLS Goal of the Year.
That’s why, when Spencer says, “He has all the tools and talent to become the best player in the league,” you probably don’t do a double take. You sit for a moment, you remember that goal and you slowly nod.
Going into Year 2 of the MLS-era Portland Timbers, Spencer and the rest of Nagbe’s teammates are looking for more of those kinds of moments. Maybe not the sheer, breathtaking quality of his juggling golazo against SKC, but certainly more game-breaking plays that are worthy of the 21-year-old’s talent.
Nagbe knows that. And he says he wants that pressure.
“It’s a confidence booster, you know?” Nagbe explained to MLSsoccer.com on Wednesday afternoon. “It just makes you feel good that [Spencer] appreciates what you’re doing on and off the field, working hard, so to hear him say that, yeah it’s pressure, but it’s good pressure.”
With that pressure comes not only the responsibility to make plays – Nagbe is a natural creator in the final third – but the responsibility to finish plays as well. He tallied just twice in 28 games as a rookie, a number that has to rise, according to the coach.
“This year he’s moved himself into more of a central role, ‘cause I sat and had a chat with him a couple of weeks ago and I said, ‘Where do you see yourself, which position do you enjoy playing more?’” explained Spencer. “And he said he enjoys playing forward, and I said, ‘Well if that’s the case then you’ve got to convince me, to play the position you want to play and more.’”
It’s a challenge for the soft-spoken Liberian, who at times looked unsure of himself when presented with an opportunity to shoot. He'd met it thus far in preseason, until he was slowed by an ankle knock picked up in a small-sided scrimmage.
“I definitely need to be more selfish, and if I am I’ll get more goals and assists that way,” Nagbe said. “It’s just something to work toward.”
In some ways it’s going to take a personality change for Nagbe, who Spencer described as “a shy, quiet guy, [who] leads his life very, very quietly.” He doesn’t seem to have the killer instincts that great goal scorers – including his coach – generally wear about themselves like a cloak.
“It’s a mind set, because I’m just calm, laid back off the field and it just translates onto the field,” Nagbe said. “So I just have to be more selfish, be more ruthless as [Spencer] says, and be more aggressive.”
If Nagbe does that, then, Spencer believes, the sky is truly the limit.
“I said this a couple of weeks ago and a few people were gasping when I said that he is as good as, technically, Landon Donovan and Brad Davis,” the coach said, choosing his words carefully. “I didn’t say he’s the same type of player right at this present moment in time, I didn’t say he was. But for natural soccer players as they go in this country, he’s up there with the best. He’s born with a pure, natural talent.”