“Darlington Nagbe is one the best midfielders in MLS history.” Caleb Porter, newly appointed New England Revolution coach, was unequivocal in his praise. Having coached the Colombus Crew midfielder on three separate occasions, most recently at Lower.com Field but also previously at the Portland Timbers and in Nagbe’s college days at the Akron Zips, Porter knows the Crew Captain better than most.
Darlington Nagbe didn’t have it easy. Born in Liberia in 1990 amid political unrest and civil war, his family was forced to flee the country and rejoin father Joe Nagbe, himself a professional footballer with 77 international caps to his name, as he carved out a career with stints at Monaco and Nice in France, Lugano in Switzerland and PAOK in Greece. As Nagbe Sr wound down his career with a stint in Asia, the rest of the family settled in Ohio, where Darlington began playing soccer for the University of Akron’s varsity team Akron Zips as well as local USL outfit Cleveland Internationals.
The 2023 version of Darlington Nagbe may be less dynamic than the raw, powerful, box-to-box dribbling sensation that signed for the Portland Timbers out of college in 2011, but this version has more strings to his bow. The Columbus Crew Captain was never a really prolific goalscorer (38 goals in 383 MLS regular season games), although when he did score, he tended to score spectacularly as two MLS Goal of the Season awards in 2011 and 2020 testify.
Since signing for the Crew back in 2020 after highly successful MLS Cup winning stints at the Timbers and then Atlanta United, the latter as a key pillar of a team containing the likes of Miguel Almiron, Josef Martinez and Ezequiel Barco and coached by Tata Martino, Nagbe has morphed into more of a deep-lying playmaker, allowing him to showcase his supreme game intelligence and dictate play from the base of midfield, an average 93% passing accuracy over his 4 seasons at Columbus Crew confirming his ability to set the tempo.
Adept at dropping into the centre back position to receive the ball and escaping the opposition press, the 4 time MLS Champion is a master of operating both with space and without it. Under former Montreal coach Wilfried Nancy this season, Columbus have been daring, offensive and occasionally gung ho, scoring the most goals in MLS but also conceding a bucketful, particularly in the second half of games they really should have seen out. Despite this careless streak, the Crew captured a 2nd MLS Cup in 4 seasons, in no small part thanks to the midfield balance that Nagbe and Aidan Morris offer in Nancy’s 3-4-2-1 set up.
Despite his imperious domestic career (Only 4 players have won more MLS Cups), Nagbe has only been capped for the USMNT 25 times, scoring once and providing 2 assists. After becoming a US citizen in 2015, it was expected that the midfielder would have a long international career in the set up, but this has not materialised, perhaps as a collateral effect of being part of the only squad not to qualify for the World Cup since 1986, but more likely because of his preference to remain in MLS and not try his luck abroad.
A move to Celtic nearly materialised in 2017, but the deal collapsed at the last second and Nagbe chose initially to stay with the Portland Timbers before switching to Atlanta the following season. With the vast majority of the USMNT pool being based abroad and therefore being exposed to a (for now) higher standard of football, those who choose to remain in the US are up against it when it comes to call ups, particularly in midfield with the likes of Weston McKennie, Brandon Aaronson and Yunes Musah plying their trade in top European leagues.
So what next for Nagbe? At 33 years old and having just added a 4th championship to his impressive collection, the Columbus Captain is happy and settled back where it all began in Ohio. With a title to defend in 2024 and a hunger for more success amongst Nancy’s squad, you can expect the relentless Nagbe to continue building his legacy for a few more years to come.
By: Jack Mcardle / @Jacko9492
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Emilee Chinn / Getty Images