24 Under 24: The making of Timbers star Darlington Nagbe
PORTLAND, Ore. – There wasn’t a whole lot of normal in Darlington Nagbe’s youth.
Born in Liberia with a civil war raging, Nagbe and his family were forced to flee the African country when he was just five months old. He and his family then moved around Europe, living in France, Greece and Switzerland, following the career of his father, Joe Nagbe, a professional soccer player and captain of the Liberian national team.
For Nagbe, the Portland Timbers' first-ever draft pick and No. 2 overall selection in the 2011 MLS SuperDraft, his youth shaped the player he is today: the No. 15-ranked player in MLSsoccer.com's third annual 24 Under 24.
“It was great,” Nagbe said of growing up idolizing his father. “Going to all the games was the best part for me and my brother, just going to the games and cheering for him and wishing one day we’d be doing the same thing.”
Nagbe said he has memories of spending time around the teams his father was playing with, kicking the ball around with the players and constantly playing soccer with his older brother, also named Joe, and the children of other team members. He said it fed what soon became an obsession and he would hone his skills whenever he could: before school, at lunch, after school.
WATCH: Nagbe's goal vs. Vancouver
He said he and his brother would even play soccer after soccer practice.
“We were just always playing,” Nagbe said.
The Nagbe family finally settled in Cleveland when Darlington was 11 and then eventually moved to the suburb of Lakewood. It was there that Darlington starred at St. Edward High School.
That led to a scholarship at the University of Akron, where he led the Zips to the school’s first national title in any sport in 2010.
And even though Nagbe said he was never pressured to play the game, his dad’s own soccer exploits left an indelible impression.
“I feel like every kid growing up wants to be like their dad, and I was lucky enough that I got the chance to do the same,” Nagbe said.
Currently wrapping up his second professional season, Nagbe said he frequently speaks to his dad, who has since moved back to Liberia, “sometimes about soccer, sometimes about life.”
WATCH: Nagbe scores vs. NY
“He doesn’t really try to critique my game too much,” Nagbe said. “He just lets me be my own person and player.”
The critiques would undoubtedly be few and far between.
The explosive midfielder has a career-high six goals, after notching two in his rookie season, and is one of the few bright spots of a difficult 2012 Timbers campaign. Still, Nagbe said there’s a lot he can improve upon.
“I’m just trying to be more consistent is the biggest thing,” Nagbe said. “I have flashes here and there. ... I just want to win more games, get more assists and goals.”
His flashes of brilliance – the video of his MLS Goal of the Year last season against Sporting Kansas City is still an online hit – have predictably led to national team talk. Nagbe, a Liberian citizen, is currently ineligible for the USMNT. But he's just received his green card and is getting married – to an American citizen, his college girlfriend Felicia Houtz – in December. That puts the clock on citizenship at somewhere around three years.
Nagbe, however, downplayed any national team aspirations with the USA or even following his father’s footsteps with Liberia.
“I haven’t thought about it too much,” he said. “I’ve been asked about that a lot of times, but I haven’t thought about it too much. I’m just focusing on the Timbers, and I’m trying to do well here before anything else.”
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at email@example.com.