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Darlington Nagbe could be the best player on the U.S. men’s national team. Does he want to be?

 

88_07_Nagbe (1)The warnings come early. When I tell other writers I’m heading to Oregon to profile Portland Timbers attacker Darlington Nagbe, the words “shy” and “introverted” invariably land in my lap. These aren’t criticisms of Nagbe so much as attempts to regulate my ambition. I want to find out what makes Nagbe tick; they aren’t sure I’m going to be able to.

This much I know: born in Liberia during the civil war in 1990, the six-month-old Nagbe escaped the devastation and ended up in France, where his father – Liberian footballer Joe Nagbe – was playing professionally. After a childhood spent following his dad’s football career across Europe, Nagbe’s mother moved the family to Ohio, where he catapulted into the American football pipeline: top youth club to top college program to Major League Soccer club.

Now 25 and a freshly-minted US citizen, he’s just received his first call-up to the US national team. It’s a development that fans have been anticipating since he joined the Timbers in 2011. “It’s almost like he’s a magician on the field,” says teammate Rodney Wallace. “When you think you’re going to win the ball from him, you have no chance.” His longtime coach Caleb Porter says, “I firmly believe it – and some people laugh when I say it – that if you took him right now and threw him in a Barcelona training session, he would not be out of place.”

Yet as I’m walking to the Timbers home ground for a match against the Chicago Fire on a warm, late-August night, one fan compares Nagbe’s lack of goals and assists to drivers in Portland. “Portlanders are passive when we drive,” he explains, decked out in a Timbers kit and scarf. “We all love him, but he’s become one of us.”

It’s an unfair criticism, but it’s one that persists. While Nagbe’s contributions to the Timbers cannot be measured only in goals and assists, production stands as the fault line between the merely good and the truly great. “If he does nothing more, he’ll be a very good MLS player,” Timbers coach Porter later tells me. “If he produces more, he has a chance to be one of the best players in other leagues in the world. He has the ability to do that, but he’s got to want to do that.”

It’s the answer to this question – what does Darlington Nagbe want? – that now has me approaching Providence Park in downtown Portland. Unlike most “soccer-specific stadiums” that stand as isolated totems to the game across suburban America, Providence Park emanates from the city’s beating heart. Before the game, it’s already loud, and the team’s mascot, a well-flanneled lumberjack nicknamed Timber Joey, paces around the pitch, menacingly revving a chainsaw. For a Portland team hunting for a playoff spot, this game against bottom-dwelling Chicago is a must-win.

The match begins, and I study Nagbe. Playing as an inverted winger, he starts on the right-hand side of the Timbers attacking formation and drifts into space between the lines of the Fire defense. His touches almost always propel possession forward, circulating, linking, probing, or at least drawing a foul (he is the third-most-fouled player in the league). In his brightest moment of the first half, he drives a well-weighted pass across goal to Nigerian striker Fanendo Adi, but Adi whiffs (and was offside, for good measure). The Timbers Army roars in approval. For a Portland team struggling to score goals, a clear chance on net is applause-worthy stuff. Nagbe spends the rest of the half linking play: always solid, seldom memorable. The Timbers score early in the second half and spend the rest of the match drowning the Fire in possession.

“I think he always does well,” Porter tells me when I ask about Nagbe’s performance. “But that brings into discussion or debate, ‘What does doing well mean?’” It’s into this Pandora’s box that anyone hoping to appreciate Nagbe must climb.

I head down to the locker room hoping to introduce myself before we meet for our interview the following week. The media scrum swarms from player to player, gobbling up quotes, and I keep watching the door, waiting for Nagbe to appear. As the crowd filters out, I check in with a member of the Timbers staff, who tells me that Nagbe often slips out a back door after games to avoid the media. Looking at his empty locker, I realize that he’s already gone.

***

“Beautiful pitch. Fantastic weather. Now fucking get better,” bellows Caleb Porter with a wry smile during a training session the next week. Two-touch passes ping from player to player, every movement and muscle guided by the memory of identical passes completed countless times before.

“Sharp … sharp,” Porter intones, and the pace quickens. I listen to the staccato thud of each trap and pass, the cacophony melding into the world’s simplest symphony. A whistle pierces the air, and the music stops.

The Timbers move into a seven v seven game, and Nagbe spends much of the scrimmage floating in and out of space, linking play in expected (if unsexy) fashion. In one moment, under pressure from Timbers defensive midfielder Will Johnson near his own goal, Nagbe feints in one direction, turns Johnson, and accelerates into space. It’s a play that will never appear on a score sheet, but it’s the kind of play that makes Nagbe a fixture in the Timbers’ starting 11.

As the scrimmage progresses, Nagbe’s team concedes two quick goals. I watch him migrate closer to goal, demanding that the ball be played into his feet, a sinister mask of aggression creeping into his play. Then, in one spellbinding instant, Nagbe collects the ball on the left side of the 18-yard box, bursts past his defender, and lashes a curling laser off the right upright and into the net. Around me, the jaws of the assembled media hang open.

I feel like I’ve just witnessed the Nagbe dilemma: the belief that he can be great when he wants to be. It’s what Portland fans have felt for years, occasional witnesses to fleeting moments of greatness that always hang, tantalizingly, out of reach.

After training ends, we meet for our interview. Sitting next to the training pitch, we talk, watching the Timbers’ United Soccer League team (T2, for short) practice, the air light and cool, scented with pine. Nagbe is dressed in athlete casual: training top, shorts, a walking advertisement for league sponsor Adidas. Unlike some professional athletes, there’s nothing inherently superhuman about his appearance; he will never draw gawking glances at the grocery store. His most remarkable feature are his eyes –deep, wide, and expressive – that appear to take in more than they give out. It follows that Nagbe is a natural observer, more comfortable on the periphery of a crowd than at its center.

In conversation, his supposed introversion proves to be overblown. Forthright and funny, he speaks in a clipped baritone. His answers are concise, but he’s always willing to elaborate. As our conversation progresses, he visibly relaxes, opening up about everything from his childhood and career to his favorite movies (anything with “a good meaning to it”) and favorite candy (gummy bears).

I ask about his beautiful goal in training earlier, the way his play seemed to flip like a switch. “Yeah, I feel that,” he says. “It got a little chippy out there, so my team just wanted to respond.”

Turning a question about an individual’s performance into a response about the team is boilerplate athletespeak, but with Nagbe it doesn’t feel like it’s born out of a false sense of humility. Again and again he deflects the spotlight, shifting focus to family, friends, and teammates.

We talk about his childhood. Nagbe says that he can’t recall his early days in Liberia, and his most powerful memories of Europe involve football. He’d play before school, at lunch, at recess, after school, on concrete, on professional pitches with his father, with his older brother’s club, with flat balls, in the street. Nagbe credits his technical ability to his time in Europe playing pick-up ball, confirming something Porter had mentioned to me earlier: that his skill is preternatural. “I honestly believe there are certain players that come out of the womb with a special gift, technically. If you asked Darlington to juggle the ball, I don’t think he could juggle more than 10 times. Juggling is what circus performers do. Darlington is a soccer player.”

Porter saw Nagbe’s ability to affect a game before most others did. As the new head coach at the University of Akron in 2006, Porter called around Ohio to learn about the best players in the state, and one name kept cropping up. After watching Nagbe once with the youth club Cleveland Internationals, Porter was transfixed (“the best youth player I’ve ever seen”). He recruited Nagbe to join him at Akron.

In Nagbe’s first training session – a five v two drill – Porter watched the young attacker instantly make the jump to the collegiate level of play. “We were just scratching the surface of the type of player he could be,” Porter says, but the drill also revealed a major component of Nagbe’s character. “Some guys, you can change them, you can push them, you can bring more out of them. With Darlington, you have to appreciate him for who he is and you have to let him push himself and you have to let the level and the competition push him.”

Porter’s comments reach the core of the Nagbe paradox: if only increased competition will unlock his immense potential, can a coach motivate him to get there? Other coaches in Nagbe’s past have seen his talent and pushed him to produce more: nagging, yelling, cajoling, the full hairdryer treatment. It never worked. “Someone kind of screaming at you – for me it doesn’t really do much,” Nagbe says. Because Porter “puts that trust in me, I don’t want to fail him.”

It’s clear that the usual motivational techniques will fail with Nagbe. Fame, money, pride, and ego don’t inspire him. His ideal evening is a night at home with his wife and young daughter. His leisure activities range from watching Netflix to playing Fifa (almost always as Chelsea, so he can control Eden Hazard). A foul in a training session may provoke a brief fit of aggressive footballing bliss, but otherwise Nagbe is decidedly “chill” (three teammates used that word to describe him), more concerned with being a good man than a great footballer.

I ask Nagbe what motivates him. “Just in life, I would say my family,” he says. “I just want to be a good person, to not let people down. So when I play, it’s just another way for me to have fun.”

For Porter, this attention to family comes – in part – from Nagbe’s vagabond years in Europe. “I’ve seen a whole new Darlington as a father,” Porter says. “He really wants to make sure, as best he can, that he spends the right amount of time with his wife and his kid. I think he felt that he didn’t get that as much as he would have liked.”

This commitment to family, coupled with his desire to play football because it’s “fun,” makes Nagbe the footballing embodiment of the Platonic ideal, the kind of player that rarely exists in the harsh glare of the modern game. But the ego that Nagbe lacks might also prevent him from ever being mentioned in the same sentence as the top American footballers, players who don’t possess Nagbe’s skill but outsrip his hunger to achieve. Players who had to train harder to reach the pros, who strain daily to become fitter, stronger, faster, also acquire an aggressive edge.

For his coach and teammates, Nagbe must develop the mental side of his game to succeed at the next level. “In terms of aggressiveness and killer instinct and having a little bit more edge, that’s the one area that maybe you want to push along more,” Porter says. “I’ll have conversations with him: ‘You need to score more and be a little more aggressive.’ But that’s going to happen when he wants it to happen.”

“A lot of people bring up the question of whether or not he has a goal-scoring ability, or the playmaking ability,” longtime teammate Michael Nanchoff adds. “He has all those tools.” Nanchoff knows Nagbe as well as anyone. Their careers have followed nearly identical arcs, from Ohio to the Timbers. “What I try to tell him is how LeBron James goes and takes over a game for the Cleveland Cavaliers. It’s pretty much what I want you to do.”

I question Nagbe about this. “I don’t try to be the best or anything like that,” he says, “but I’ve been happy. I always put my family first, and if I’m happy in what I’m doing then I’m going to continue to do that.”

On the field, as T2 begins a scrimmage, I ask Nagbe about his family. After a childhood spent bouncing around Europe, he has spent his entire professional career (five seasons) in Portland. Last year, his wife, Felicia (his college sweetheart), gave birth to their first child, and the couple is expecting their second, a boy, early next year. “If I could have 10 kids, I would!” exclaims Nagbe. (He later said that he and his wife would probably stop after three, but “you never know.”)

All of this talk about family makes me wonder if Nagbe has any desire to uproot his growing clan and make a move to Europe. “Growing up, you think about it a lot,” he tells me. “If someone came to me, I’d definitely listen. But I have a family. I’m not going to force myself to chase it as much, just kind of let it happen.” No matter what happens, Nagbe is certain of one thing: he wants to end up back where he feels most at home. “I’d like to be back home playing professional soccer in Cleveland,” he says. “I consider myself a Cleveland kid even though I was born in Liberia. Ohio is my home.”

With our interview over, Nagbe – always polite – thanks me for taking the time to interview him and heads home. As he makes his way to the parking lot and his (MLS-approved) Audi, I joke that he will need a bigger car when his son is born. “I’m not getting a minivan!” he hollers back, smiling. I’m not sure if I believe him.

***

A few weeks after our interview, Nagbe passed the US citizenship test with a perfect score, fulfilling his mother’s dream that her son become an American. True to his humble roots, Nagbe eschewed a party in favor of an intimate family gathering. (Nanchoff would tell me later in jest that he almost threw Nagbe a big party because “he would hate something like that.”)

Watching Nagbe’s recent matches on TV, I see more aggression creeping into his game. In a win against the Columbus Crew, he hovered around the 18-yard box, working a quick give-and-go with Rodney Wallace before cheekily assisting Adi with a chipped pass. In the season finale against Colorado, Nagbe notched a brace (his first a thundering free kick) and assisted on a third goal, earning MLS player of the week honors.

In a follow-up conversation on the phone, I ask Nagbe if he’s being more aggressive on purpose. “Yeah, I think so,” he tells me. “But then again it just depends on the game and what they give me. Sometimes I don’t have opportunities to be as aggressive, but in the last few games I’ve had those opportunities.”

Nagbe denies that the added dynamism in his play has anything to do with a newfound pressure to impress Jürgen Klinsmann. Following-up, I take one final chance to ask Nagbe how he reacts when he hears people like Caleb Porter express a desire for him to be more aggressive.

“Yeah, he’s told me multiple times,” says Nagbe. “For me, it’s the same reaction. I don’t try to look too far ahead of things or down the line. I just go in there and when the game starts I play for fun. And if other things happen then other things happen.”

The answer is pure, distilled Nagbe, but it’s one that is at odds with the mindset Klinsmann is trying to instill into his American players. Since taking over as manager in 2011, Klinsmann has preached a gospel of constant growth. “Wherever your job is, you can’t do it same way you did it the last couple of years because eventually you’re not getting anywhere,” he said in 2014. “In order to get to the next level, you’ve got to mix things up and change it.”

With Nagbe set for a national team call-up, I wonder how the German manager will deal with his new, enigmatic American attacker. In our interview, Nagbe expressed awe at a chance to represent the United States. “For me, it’d be an honor to be selected to go represent a whole country,” he said. “Growing up as a kid you think about that stuff.”

But I’m also reminded of something Nagbe said in August about his time at Akron in college. “I won a national championship at Akron with my best friends, and I’m still friends with all of them, and I remember it,” he said, hovering on those last three words, his eyes lost in memory. After a brief pause, he continued, the idea seeming to coalesce from fragments into words as he spoke.

“And you can win a championship, but if you didn’t have fun all season, I feel like you don’t remember it,” he concluded. In a similar vein, Nagbe said in our follow-up phone call, “If I’m not enjoying the game, then there’s no point in me playing.”

I’ve never sensed that “fun” was a popular word in Klinsmann’s vocabulary, or that he would prefer enjoying football to winning a championship. I hoped to speak to Klinsmann about how he would approach Nagbe and if he believed the Timbers attacker could help the team out of their current doldrums, but Klinsmann and US Soccer declined to comment on him at this time. A spokesman for US Soccer did confirm that Klinsmann anticipates calling up Nagbe after Fifa officially clears Nagbe to represent the United States, a process which is underway and should be complete soon.

For Porter, the national team will be the lever that pushes Nagbe to new heights. “In some ways, I think that’s where we are at with him right now. He needs that next kind of jump, and I think we’ll see that next level.” For Nanchoff, the question remains premature: “Anybody can say, ‘Why is Darlington still here? He can go play for Manchester United or Barcelona.’ Is he good enough to play at that level? Heck yeah. But I just think right now the opportunity hasn’t presented itself.”

When Nagbe does finally earn his first appearance for the national team, it will come with higher expectations: to produce, to score, to play in Europe. Each of these things will, inherently, limit the time that Nagbe can spend in the home that he has so fastidiously cultivated in Portland. Porter believes that Nagbe can be a world-class footballer and a world-class father. “Doing both, that’s where he has got to realize it. Just because you want to be good at soccer doesn’t mean that you are neglecting your family,” he says.

On this question, the one I set out to answer, Nagbe remains coy. As he told me in August: “You can probably tell by now I’m just a whatever-happens-happens kind of guy. My main focus is my family, being a good dad, being a friend, and being a good son. I’m happy right now, but we’ll see.”

For many of us – those who love the game but never had the ability to make it at the highest level – it’s an unsatisfying answer. It’s easier to think of Nagbe not as the complex, dynamic man that he is but instead as a figure in a video game, one we can maneuver with the flick of a switch, one whose superhuman talents can be unlocked with the light press of a button.

Thankfully, Darlington Nagbe is more than a cold collection of statistics. He is a father, a husband, a brother, a son, a friend, and a teammate. Oh, and he’s a pretty damn good footballer, too.

But I have a feeling that if he was ever forced to choose between the two, the answer would never really be in doubt.

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