By Eddy Prugh
The 2018 MLS season is underway! Well, I’ve missed the punch a bit I guess. The season has been underway for almost 2 months but it feels like less since the Portland Timbers only just played their first home game a week ago. The first kick of the 2018 season brought with it some big changes to the Timbers organization. In fact it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that it was the dawning of a new era. After all, there was a new coach patrolling the touchline.
At the end of the 2017 season, head coach Caleb Porter’s abrupt announcement that he would be stepping down as head coach sent waves of surprise that bordered on shock rippling through the soccer world. He was at the helm for five seasons and although Scottish coach John Spencer preceded him, Porter is the man who will be remembered as the original commander-in-chief of the MLS-era Timbers. But while Porter might have instilled the confidence and tactics to win an MLS Cup in 2015, it was another member of the organization who better embodied the spirit of the club.
This offseason, Timbers fans watched sadly as the soft-spoken talisman waved goodbye to his first professional club and signed for expansion side Atlanta United.
Nagbe was the Timbers’ first-ever SuperDraft pick way back in 2011. Even players who reach grand levels of success in college can have trouble adapting to the MLS, but not Nagbe. After winning the Mac Hermann Trophy (the Heisman Trophy of college soccer) in 2010 at the University of Akron—where, incidentally, Caleb Porter was head coach at the time—he transitioned seamlessly to the professional game and started 21 games in his rookie season. His confidence would only grow as Porter took the reigns of the franchise in 2013.
For the next five years, Nagbe would develop into a special player, setting the bar higher and higher for himself each season. In his head-down, straight-to-business way, he developed a reputation around the league for being grossly underrated. The recognition that he deserved would come eventually. After he became a U.S. citizen in 2015 he began representing the United States National Team on a regular basis and in 2016 he was selected as an MLS All-Star.
Nagbe was the ultimate utility player; so diverse and intelligent that even after seven seasons watching him play for the Timbers, it’s still difficult to determine where on the field he is most effective. He was comfortable drifting onto the wing and running at defenders, dropping deep in midfield and initiating the attack, buzzing around underneath the striker or even spearheading the offense as a lone striker.
He scored 27 goals and notched 30 assists in Timbers colors but it was what he did away from the ball that made him so valuable. While so many players these days throw their hands in the air when they don’t get the ball in the exact way that they want, Nagbe was the exact opposite. He never shied away from doing the dirty work, the selfless and often un-praised running that was so important in creating the space less mobile creative players to work their magic, a true team-before-self player.
As a testament to his character, it should be noted that Nagbe was a two-time MLS Fair Play Award winner: an honor awarded to the player who stands out for displaying exceptional sportsmanlike behavior throughout the season while also committing a small number of fouls. This award might seem as though it is all about character and not about soccer ability but that’s not the case. When he won the award in 2013 and 2015, he committed a total of 8 and 11 fouls respectively. From this statistic we can draw the conclusion that he was incredibly disciplined and hard working defensively because he was so rarely caught in a bad position where was forced to commit a foul.
His goals were worth the price of admission. He was never a volume goal scorer but the goals that he did score were usually something special. Our jaws hit the floor when he scored his first. In a game against Sporting Kansas City in what was then Jeld-Wen Field. He gathered a clearance out of mid-air, juggling it twice before volleying it viciously into the top corner. It won 2011 MLS Goal of the Year and remains the greatest goal ever scored at Providence Park by a long way.
In the young history of the Portland Timbers, Darlington Nagbe has cemented his status as a Portland hero. After his departure, there only remains goalkeeper Jake Gleeson and unsung midfield engine Diego Chará who were members of the original MLS Timbers roster from 2011.
Atlanta United won’t make the trip to Portland during the 2018 season, but one day Darlington Nagbe will return to Portland in colors other than green and gold. So when that day comes, sing his name in the stands of Providence Park and remember all that he gave us, the Timbers’ first true legend.