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Player Spotlight

Darlington Nagbe: A Special Talent with U.S. Aspirations

The Portland Timbers attacker is a game-changing talent who hopes to play for the U.S. national team someday. In the meantime, he has a huge game this Sunday against Real Salt Lake.

BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
November 22, 2013
11:27 AM
HAVING LOST TO REAL SALT LAKE in the first leg of its Western Conference playoff, the Portland Timbers will need to do something special in Sunday's rematch (9 p.m. Eastern, ESPN). And when the Timbers need a dose of special, all eyes turn toward attacker Darlington Nagbe.

The 23-year-old Nagbe has had a breakout year in 2013, scoring nine goals and chipping in with four assists in 34 regular season games played. His dynamic play extends past the scoresheet, however, and Nagbe's vision and link-up play helps elevate everybody on the squad. In September, the MLS website named Nagbe as the top player in its “24 Under 24” series.

Despite the 4-2 loss in Sandy, Utah, Nagbe is optimistic about the challenge ahead, especially since the Timbers enjoyed an 11-1-5 record at home.

“In training we’ve been focused on ourselves and doing what we do best, and that’s trying attack,” Nagbe told American Soccer Now. “The first leg, I’m not sure what went wrong. They’re a good team with good players. We were trying to play our game and attack. We were unlucky not to come away with more goals."

"We’re coming back home, where we’ve known we’ve done well attacking-wise and defensively," he added. "We just have to put two and two together.”

Nagbe credits much of his team’s improvement—as well as his own—to Caleb Porter, who was hired as Timbers head coach earlier this season.

Nagbe played for Porter at the University of Akron when the Zips won the 2010 National Championship. That year Nagbe also won the Hermann Trophy as the best college player in America. He was subsequently drafted second overall in the 2011 MLS Superdraft.

Nagbe has noticed a change in Porter's coaching style as he moved from college to the pros.

“I’d say that right now he’s a little bit more patient with the guys,” Nagbe said of Porter. “They’re grown men and they’re professionals so he’s going to let them work on their mistakes. In college he’d get on them a bit so they didn’t repeat their mistakes. He’s a little calmer. I feel that he’s done a great job. The team has improved a lot from last year and he’s a big reason why.”

Former MLS defender Zarek Valentin, who played with Nagbe at Akron and now is on the books at Bodo/Glimt in Norway, is the not the least bit surprised by the success Porter and Nagbe have enjoyed this season.

“Caleb has this unique ability to get the best out of players,” Valentin said. “Darlington is a prime example because he's a type of player who Caleb allows to be himself. I always tell people Darlington is one of the best players I've ever played with. After that people say something like, ‘Oh haven't you played with some Italian national team guys?’ I respond with yes. Besides Alessandro Nesta and a few others he's definitely up there. He has the best touch I've ever seen and the ability to flip a game at any moment. Not many people have that ability.”

Porter agrees that Nagbe has a very high ceiling. When interviewed about Nagbe for the “24 Under 24” series, he opened up about Nagbe, saying that the hybrid forward/attacking midfielder has truly elite talent that is rare for MLS.

“He came out of the womb with the ability to control the ball like he does,” Porter said. “He has athleticism as well—extremely explosive, great balance. The other thing with him is he’s become much more assertive. I think you’ve seen that. His production this year has been the best of his career. It’s honestly the tip of the iceberg. I think he really does have the ability to be the most special players that this country has seen.”

Soccer has been a part of Nagbe’s life as far back as he can remember. His father, Joe Nagbe, was a professional player and featured for teams such as Nice in Ligue 1 (where he was the team’s captain) and PAOK FC in Greece’s Super League. He was also a standout for the Liberian national team, earning 97 caps and playing alongside George Weah.

Nagbe was born in Monrovia, Liberia, but spent his early years in Europe while his father was playing. He was always very close with his father and it was his dream to follow in his footsteps as a professional player. The younger Nagbe moved to the United States at age 11, settling in Ohio later starring at the University of Akron.

Last December, Nagbe married his college sweetheart and the two are expecting their first child next year. Under U.S. immigration laws, Nagbe will be eligible for American citizenship after three years of marriage (December 15, 2015) provided that he continues to meet residency requirements.

American citizenship is something that is very important to Nagbe both for soccer and for his life in general.

“It will mean a lot,” Nagbe said of obtaining his U.S. citizenship in 25 months. “Personally, for my mom, because she moved here so we could get our citizenship and get a great education. Soccer-wise it will make me eligible to play for the United States national team. That’d be great to potentially have a chance to play for them.”

For now, Nagbe is left to watch, and wait for his opportunity.

“It’s tough,” Nagbe said of being inactive during the international breaks. “I try not to think about it. I just try to focus on the good part about not going on those trips and how I get to stay home with my family. I follow the U.S., especially when some of my teammates or guys I know will be playing. I make a great effort to watch their games. Also I live here and I play in MLS. I feel every MLS player watches the U.S. games.”

Fortunately for Nagbe, the international window is now closed. On Sunday he and the Timbers face challenge of trying to erase a 4-2 deficit against a talented Real Salt Lake squad. It is a difficult task but one that offers the opportunity for Nagbe to once again showcase the fact that he is one of the best players in the league.

What do you think of Nagbe? Do you expect him to be a big part of the United States national team once he is eligible? Share your thoughts below.

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