Darlington Nagbe isn’t the most renowned pair of words in the English language, but he’s quickly becoming one of the best players in the United States. The 26-year-old midfielder flirted with a move to Scottish giants Celtic all winter long until reports came in that Celtic and Portland could not agree a fee for the player. Nagbe has since announced that he wants to stay with Portland for the remainder of his contract which ends at the end of the 2019 season.
Nagbe is a Liberian-born football player who gained American citizenship in 2015 and has been playing with the USMNT since. Why is it important that I keep mentioning that he is Liberian? His father, Joe Nagbe, is a Liberian football legend and has been the assistant manager of the national team since 2010. Darlington Nagbe and his father have a truly amazing story that not many people can relate to. When Darlington was just five months old, he was forced to leave his home country due to the civil war. Nagbe left with his mother and his older brother, leaving his father behind. Fortunately, Joe Nagbe was able to leave the country when AS Monaco offered him a contract along him with fellow Liberian great, George Weah. Joe bounced around Europe, playing for many teams and always taking his family with him until they finally settled into Cleveland, Ohio when Darlington was 11 years old.
As you can tell, Darlington had a rather unusual childhood which never allowed him to join any academies. Darlington learned all about the beautiful game simply watching his father, which may be why he is such a family man. When invited to a training camp for the United States in 2016, he turned down the offer because he wanted to go home and see his family back in Liberia. A truly admirable thing to do from a family perspective, right? However, it did not go over well with then-US manager Jürgen Klinsmann. Many thought Nagbe would never put on a USMNT kit again. Luckily for Nagbe, the US have moved on from Klinsmann, and Nagbe has to try to win over new manager Bruce Arena.
The first thing you’ll notice when watching any given Portland Timbers match is the player in green wearing the number 6 kit. Darlington tends to stand out for the current Portland side due to the fact that Caleb Porter (current Portland Timbers manager) has had Nagbe play in a box-to-box role the last 2 MLS seasons. This allows him to see more of the ball while his team is in possession. Nagbe has flourished in this role, and Portland are at their best when Nagbe has the ball at his feet. While being versatile has great benefits for your coaching staff, you can form a good argument that any given player will feel more comfortable having one role their whole career, which is the case for Nagbe, but we’ll get back to that later. Back to his strengths, the Liberian-American can do it all, whether you need a player to pick out a 40-yard pass to switch the play, or play a simple through ball, Nagbe always seems to know the right option. Darlington is also known for his ability to score from anywhere on the pitch. It is not often that he gets on the scoresheet, but most of his goals tend to be wonder goals from 25 yards. Chances are you’ve probably already seen a Darlington Nagbe goal on the internet at one point in your life, whether it be the top left bullet vs. Vancouver or the volley vs. Sporting KC. While he isn’t scoring as much as he has in the past, he has boosted his assist tally. Earlier in his career he seemed to focus more on scoring, becoming too selfish at times, but recently he’s focused more on setting up his teammates with goalscoring opportunities.
Darlington Nagbe is a rare talent in the MLS. While most playmakers are 5’6” or below, he is 5’9,” which allows him to play completely different to the likes of Sebastian Giovinco, Luciano Acosta, or New York City FC’s new signing Maxi Moralez. It is not often you see a player of his height play the way he does, which is why it is so hard for people to find a player to compare him to. Nagbe uses his strength to power through defenders, a quality mostly found in towering center forwards, but not creative outlets. Darlington Nagbe has paired up with Argentine magician Diego Valeri for what is going to be 5 MLS seasons after this coming season. The duo is a two-man-show at times; if the chemistry is right, there isn’t a defense in the league that can stop them. Expected Portland’s new signing Sebastian Blanco, former West Bromwich Albion man, to add to this creative synergy. This signing will likely force Nagbe out on the right wing where he plays at his best. Nagbe seems to prefer the wing because he is very good at beating any fullback 1 on 1. However, he always tends to drift inside, allowing for his fullback to overlap on the wing which allows him to show his brilliant link-up play.
Why is 2017 the year that Darlington Nagbe needs to take over? Darlington Nagbe seems to have finally found his place in football, whereas before he never seemed to have a set role. Being versatile allowed him to play many different roles for the Timbers, but it seems he has finally settled in as the club’s main playmaker. At 26, he finally knows his best role; expect him to harness this and step up his level this season. Also, a new opportunity has presented itself with the USMNT as they are looking for a playmaker to unlock opposing teams’ defenses. Nagbe needs to prove he is the right man because Sacha Kljestan has impressed Bruce Arena in the January camp and is most likely Arena’s preferred player at the moment before Darlington even has the opportunity to impress. 2017 is a very big year for the USMNT, and Darlington Nagbe might just be the one player Bruce Arena has at his disposal to bring his Americans to the 2018 World Cup in Russia. As Portland aim to bounce back from a disappointing 2016 MLS season, Darlington Nagbe will be a key player in their fight back to the top.
Photo Credit: USA Today Sports