BEAVERTON, Ore. – As is customary on a variety of topics, Darlington Nagbe doesn’t usually have much to say about his US national team prospects.
Still, the soft-spoken Portland Timbers attacker’s path to US citizenship is drawing to a close; he confirmed to MLSsoccer.com that he’ll take his naturalization test, the final step toward citizenship, on Sept. 10. That's led many USMNT observers to predict an imminent national team call-up in the next window in which he is eligible, two World Cup qualifiers in November.
But Nagbe – who Timbers fans have watched grow from the second-overall pick in the 2011 MLS SuperDraft into a 25-year-old veteran in his fifth season in the Rose City – said he’s trying not to spend too much time thinking about it.
Nor has he heard from anyone with U.S. Soccer, for that matter, he said this week from the team’s training facility, ahead of his 18th time across all competitions facing Cascadia rival Seattle Sounders on Sunday at CenturyLink Field (1:30 pm ET; ESPN).
“I haven’t spoken to anybody there,” said Nagbe, who was born in Liberia, raised in the US, and discovered by Timbers head coach Caleb Porter when the latter was a coach at the University of Akron. “I don’t know anyone over there, but hopefully. We’ll see.”
Talk of Nagbe wearing the Red, White and Blue has followed him since he flashed an incredible combination of athleticism and skill from rookie season on. It only escalated after a breakout goal-scoring campaign in 2013, in which he scored nine times. The goal-scoring hasn’t always been there; he only notched one last year and two so far this season, perhaps the only frustrating aspect of his game. But his abilities on the ball remain among the best in the league, possibly keeping him on the radar of USMNT boss Jurgen Klinsmann.
“I always say the same thing, for me he is the best player naturally here in this team,” Timbers playmaker Diego Valeri said. “I look to him, and I think he’s grown up a lot, and for me he is playing better every day.”
Early in the 2014 season, Nagbe told MLSsoccer.com that should he get the call, he would choose the United States over his native Liberia, where his father Joe, who himself formerly captained their national team, still lives. “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,” Nagbe said at the time. “It’d be great to get an opportunity.”
So how has Nagbe progressed?
The nine-goal season now more of an outlier, Nagbe’s style has evolved more into that of a creator. From his right wing position, Nagbe’s role is to get on the ball as much as possible to dictate pace and possession and allow teammates to play off him.
“He can do things that nobody can,” Valeri said. “He can make dribbling, he can drive, he can change the pace, and nobody can do that. Technically he’s great, and he’s a relief for us. Sometimes when we’re under pressure, and he gets the ball, he can make changes. Maybe he’s not scoring a lot of goals, but he’s creating a lot for the team.”
Ironically, Nagbe is coming off a goal in his last game, a left-footed roller created as he skirted the Houston Dynamo defense atop the penalty area, using a clever give-and-go with Lucas Melano to sneak a left-footed roller under goalkeeper Tyler Deric. It sparked a rally from 2-0 down for a 2-2 draw with the Dynamo, a big result in the tight Western Conference.
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Nagbe said a performance like that is always nice, especially coming into a big rivalry match, which he said never gets old. “I feel like whether it’s your first game against them or years for now playing that game," he said, "I’m still going to be fired up for that game just because of how much it means to the fans and to us as a team."
The nationally televised game will feature not only the prototypical derby atmosphere, but also heightened playoff implications for the two sides fighting to work their way up the table. As such, it'll offer another big stage on which Nagbe can showcase his skills. And even though he plays it down publicly, Porter said it’s definitely something weighing on the player's mind.
“I think he’s excited about it, he’s excited about the opportunity," Porter said. "But there’s no guarantee that even with his citizenship that Jurgen wants to call him in. We hope that happens. I think he’s good enough to get that opportunity."
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.