It happened more than six years ago, but I still think of it nearly every time his name comes up.
It might just be my favorite MLS goal ever.
He was a richly-anticipated prospect for those who’d watched him at Akron, spearheading some of the slickest, most dominant teams NCAA soccer has ever witnessed, before the Portland Timbers made him their first ever MLS SuperDraft pick ahead of their expansion season. But Darlington Nagbe really and truly introduced himself to the soccer public on July 2, 2011.
The Timbers’ entrance into the league had already turned heads around the world that spring, thanks largely to the Timbers Army and the rest of the feverish home support that made what was then Jeld-Wen Field into a tinderbox of noise and spectacle. Things really got interesting, however, when it turned out that they had a potentially all-world talent in their midfield, blessed with rare levels of technique, athleticism and an enthralling smoothness to everything he did.
That goal was the tantalizing synthesis of it all, and it began a love affair between player and city.
Son of a Liberian national teamer, a refugee who narrowly escaped his old country’s civil war, Nagbe’s life was already something of a fairy tale when he arrived in the Rose City. He would add All-Star status, an MLS Cup title and a long-awaited US national team career to the story, gradually becoming one of the public faces of PTFC and a cherished member of a soccer-mad community.
Now Nagbe is gone, off to join the burgeoning project at Atlanta United via a blockbuster trade that drops the curtain on an epochal era in Portland – and probably marks a new chapter in his own life as well.
He leaves town a few weeks after Caleb Porter, his coach at both the college and pro levels, and while other departures may yet transpire for the Timbers, the loss of those two figures alone signals a sea change for a club that has taken so much of its modern identity from them.
It’s a distant memory now, but Portland once played a British sort of game under their first coach in MLS, John Spencer. Stockpiling pacey wingers and strapping strikers, the pugnacious Scotsman ordered the home pitch trimmed down to a narrower width and ordered up a breathless, cross-heavy approach. It was exhilarating at times, but didn’t really suit the pensive Nagbe. More pressingly, the playoffs remained elusive and so in came Porter for the 2013 campaign.
Suddenly we saw new levels of ambition, fluidity and tactical sophistication on the Rose City turf, and Nagbe worked at the heart of it as one of Porter’s on-field avatars. He didn’t exactly rack up golazos like that 2011 banger – in fact his recurring tendency towards passivity around the opposition’s box drove some Timbers fans to distraction.
But his value in terms of possession mastery and cohesive influence was clear, serving as a connecting force to amplify talented teammates like Diego Valeri.
“We're just not as good in possession” without Nagbe, Porter told the Portland Tribune when the midfielder was injured back in May. “Sometimes you don't know how good a guy is or his impact until he's gone. It's not always the goals, but it's his ability to float around and find pockets and help us keep the ball, get out of tight spaces.”
Even Porter called Nagbe an “enigma.” But he as much as anyone made Portland a force to be reckoned with in the Western Conference, even during periods of galling underachievement in 2013 and 2016.
And now they’ve gone in a different direction entirely. Reports this week link longtime New York Cosmos boss Giovanni Savarese to the Timbers’ coaching vacancy. Another of North American’s sharpest soccer minds, he's likely to take the side in his own direction, whether it means modifying Porter’s plan or sweeping the slate clean.
Nagbe was one of just three Timbers left from the club’s expansion season. His exit turns a page. Perhaps Tata Martino and his lavishly equipped Five Stripes squad can help Nagbe smooth out those soft spots in his game and take him to another level. Maybe Savarese is the right man at the right time for new achievements in Portland.
The future is wide open.