PORTLAND, Ore. – In many ways, the Rose City has watched Darlington Nagbe grow up right before its eyes.
After all, the 23-year-old playmaker is the only player who started his professional career with the Timbers during the inaugural season in 2011 and still has a spot in the locker room. He’s also the first player in franchise history to log 100 appearances – a mark he hit earlier this month as part of a streak of 54 consecutive games played – and he’s earned his way into Timbers fans’ hearts with his pure skill, athletic ability and a 2011 Goal of the Year winner still worth a look, even if you’ve seen it 100 times before.
“It means a lot,” Nagbe told MLSsoccer.com about his 100th Timbers appearance, played against the rival Seattle Sounders earlier this month. “Especially with the guys who have been here like [Diego] Chara and Jack [Jewsbury], who have been here as long as I have, to be the first is cool.”
Nagbe is coming off his most successful season, when he recorded career-high numbers in goals (nine) and assists (four), perhaps not coincidentally coinciding with his old college coach, Caleb Porter, taking the helm prior to the 2013 season. Nagbe was just one of many feel-good stories as the Timbers won the Western Conference regular season title and advanced to the Conference Championship series of the MLS Cup Playoffs.
It was precisely what Timbers fans, and soccer prognosticators, had been waiting for from Nagbe.
“I feel like the difference is chemistry,” Nagbe said. “I’ve been with this team and the core group of guys here going on four years now. And Caleb coming in helped a lot, the confidence he instills in me and the players who came in like [captain Will] Johnson and [midfielder Diego] Valeri, that helped a lot. And also just being familiar with the league has helped me not be as timid.”
Still, despite solidifying himself as one of the league’s best players, there are some who see a much deeper well of potential. His streaking goal in the Conference Semifinals last November against the Sounders (video above) is as impressive a goal as you’ll see from any player in the league, exemplifying his uncommon balance, pace, touch and deadly finishing within a blink of an eye.
And with another year under Porter’s wing, a handful of former Akron teammates and good friends (Ben Zemanski, Michael Nanchoff and Steve Zakuani) together once again, it would seem all the ingredients are there for Nagbe to take another huge step forward.
“For me, I come to practice and go to the games; people are going to say what they’re going to say,” he said. “I don’t hear too much of it, to be honest. I try to listen to my teammates and my coaching staff, and that’s where I hear it most from. Overall, I’m happy with my game and the way I’m progressing. Of course, I know I can be a little more selfish and get a little more goals and assists, and hopefully that will come.”
With just one assist in six games so far this season heading into the team’s matchup Saturday at Real Salt Lake (9:30 pm ET, MLS Live), it hasn’t come yet. But when it does, what then?
The same prognosticators that see flashes of a young Landon Donovan in green and gold also frequently contemplate Nagbe’s national-team future and where his allegiances lie.
Nagbe is still a Liberian citizen but was married after the 2012 season to a Portland resident, Felicia Houtz, and is on track to become a US citizen in 2015. His national team future is something he’s always been reluctant to talk about, but with a recently born daughter, wife and friends all in Portland, Nagbe’s decision-making process is becoming more clear.
Is his future with the US national team, rather than Liberia, should it ever come to that?
“Yeah, I think so,” Nagbe said. “I think so. It all depends on how I’m doing. So hopefully if I’m doing well it happens.”
If Nagbe steps under the U.S. Soccer umbrella, he’d be forgoing the country of his birth, where he lived for only five months before he, his brother, Joe, and his mother, Somah, fled amidst a civil war to join his father, also named Joe, as he traveled around Europe playing professional soccer. They eventually settled in Ohio, where Porter discovered Nagbe as a youngster.
Nagbe’s father also happens to be a former Liberian international and is currently a coach in the Liberian national team youth ranks.
But Nagbe said he hasn’t discussed his national team decision with his father, who he said, “lets me do my own thing,” nor is he being recruited to follow in his father’s footsteps. Nagbe also said he hasn’t been contacted by U.S. Soccer regarding his future plans, although Porter, who coached the U-23s in the last Olympic qualifying cycle, hinted at it recently.
In comments criticizing the league’s officials for allowing Nagbe to be fouled incessantly, Porter insisted that when Nagbe becomes a US international, he’d be protected more than ever before.
“I haven’t talked to anyone about it, not even Caleb,” Nagbe said. “Teammates have asked me here and there, and I just say focus on your club team and do well with your club team and all the other stuff will fall into place.”
And with just a year until that becomes possible, Nagbe said the possibility excites him.
“I’m looking forward to it, you know,” he said. “I have to say there’s a lot of good players in the league here and overseas that are capable of going in there and getting the job done for the national team, so hopefully when the time does come I’m having a good enough season and I keep progressing like I’ve been progressing to get an opportunity. It’d be great to get an opportunity.”
But the big question remains: What exactly is Nagbe capable of?
He was far more timid during his first few years in the league than he is now, and he’s become one of the most dynamic players in the league when he’s on his game.
For that, Nagbe credits Porter for putting him in a position, as an outside forward rather than the middle-of-the-park role employed by former Timbers head coach John Spencer, where he is better suited.
In other words, the offense doesn’t revolve around him – that’s Valeri’s role – and he’s given the freedom to pop up and make plays.
“Caleb’s style of play, he knows how I like to play and he tries to put me in a situation where I can be successful playing the way I do play,” he said. “So I feel like he’s done a good job.”
Still, Nagbe’s personality is not suited for the fiery leadership role. And he’s the first to admit, he likes to let his play do the talking, leading to the question of whether the nice-guy persona diminishes the product on the field, something Spencer harped on in 2011.
“I think it’s just something I need to grow into, and I feel like the coaching staff knows that also,” Nagbe said of his leadership abilities. “The biggest thing they tell me is to be vocal and go out there and get the ball and try to lead that way, and try to make plays for us. There’s other ways to lead besides being vocal, and I’m trying to do that.”
Nagbe also said that the fact that he couldn’t find himself in a more perfect situation off the field has helped him become more comfortable on it. And that wasn’t the case early in his Timbers career.
He said Nanchoff, Zemanski and Zakuani are “always over,” he said, to play video games or just hang out.
“We always talked about it when we left Akron, ‘What if we all played together, how fun would that be?’” Nagbe said. “But we were just joking around. And once Caleb got here, it actually happened. So it’s been great on the field and off the field it’s been great also. …
"A big part of the game is mental, and I feel like if you feel good and everything off the field is good, then when you get on the field you perform better. I feel like having those guys here and coach Porter here has definitely helped me with the mental side of my game.”
That outlook should also make Timbers fans breath easy, especially considering at least some of the talk surrounding Nagbe’s career has revolved around whether he will bolt to a more lucrative deal overseas in the future.
He did admit that becoming a father before the season has given him a different outlook on his career and the drive to provide a comfortable life for his daughter, but he can envision making that a possibility in Portland.
“Looking down the road, I still see myself as a Timber,” he said. “I feel like this is the best club to play for, and if I’m in MLS I wouldn’t want to be at any other club. …
"If I do get an opportunity, it would be tough because I’ve been here since I was 20 years old and they’ve been so good to me, the whole organization and the community and the fans.”
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.