COLUMBUS, Ohio – Much about the Portland Timbers’ run to Sunday’s MLS Cup final could be considered fate.
There was the two-goalpost penalty kick miss that allowed them to survive the Knockout Round in a wild extra-time shootout, Nat Borchers’ dramatic goal-line clearance to preserve their passage in the Western Conference Championship, all trumped by an unforeseen eight-game unbeaten run that started way back in October when they found themselves below the red line.
But there’s one twist of fate over the Timbers’ first five years in the league that, if it had not gone their way, would have likely altered their brief MLS history: the drafting of Darlington Nagbe in 2011, the team’s inaugural season in MLS.
Coming into that first season in the league, the Timbers had the No. 2 overall pick in the SuperDraft behind fellow expansion team Vancouver Whitecaps. And Nagbe was the sure-fire top pick coming out of the University of Akron, where he had been discovered and coached by current Portland Timbers coach Caleb Porter, as the NCAA Player of the Year who helped lead the Zips to the 2010 NCAA national title.
“I remember having long conversations with [former Timbers assistant coach] Amos Magee, who was on staff, and a couple conversations with [previous head coach] John Spencer about the kid,” Porter said. “I was highly involved in the process.”
Timbers general manager Gavin Wilkinson told MLSsoccer.com that it was easy to see right away that Nagbe was the player they wanted, a player who they could build their franchise around. He also said the fact that Nagbe had professed before the draft that he preferred to stay in the United States certainly helped Portland land him.
Nagbe grew up in Ohio after immigrating to the US with his family from Liberia as a youngster to escape civil war there. For citizenship reasons, which were realized in September this year and were followed by a US national team call-up, Nagbe preferred to remain in the USA.
“There were many, many different layers,” Wilkinson said. “We spoke to his family, we spoke to him many, many different times, and we were fortunate enough to get him with the second pick. I think when [Vancouver] started to look at the make-up of their team, maybe Darlington wasn’t a player they needed at that time.
“And for us he was a focal point. When you start to look at a player coming out of the draft that starts immediately, not only does he have talent, but he’s also needed.”
Vancouver ultimately picked US youth international Omar Salgado, and the Timbers got their man.
“It was fun,” Nagbe said Friday at the MLS Cup pregame press conference here. “At that time I was 19, you know, it was just getting to know the coaches and things like that. When they told me that they wanted to draft me, it was exciting, and it’s turned out to be everything I’d hoped it would be five years later playing in my first championship game still with the Timbers.
“So hopefully it just keeps getting better from here.”
The next twist of fate occurred two years after he became a Timber, two seasons in which he showed flashes of the talent that has turned him into one of Portland’s key midfield pieces – a box-to-box dynamo that has him currently in the good graces of USMNT head coach Jurgen Klinsmann – but only scratching the surface of the player he is today.
During the 2012 season, the Timbers made a coaching change, and in the offseason Porter was brought on board.
“When we were looking to bring Caleb on board, [Nagbe] was the focal point,” Wilkinson said. “He wasn’t the reason Caleb saw this is as a great opportunity, but he’d obviously heard from Darlington about all the experiences and everything else, and in many ways I’m sure wanted to be reunited with Darlington and knows the level that is within the kid.”
Nagbe turned in his best offensive season in Porter’s first year at the helm, recording a career-high nine goals along with four assists to help bring the Timbers to the Western Conference No. 1 seed and the Conference Championship stage of the playoffs.
And this year Nagbe took another leap, making a shift to a central role after playing mostly on the right wing under Porter. It was a move designed to unlock even more of his potential, which Porter has shown to have a knack for with Nagbe.
“I just think that Darlington is a player who the more he is respected, the more he’ll give back,” Wilkinson said. “And he’s very level-headed, he’s very mature, even coming out of college he was very mature, very responsible. He knows what he wants. … Caleb knows his whole story, knows which buttons to push, when to push them, and he’s player who knows he’s very well respected by the coaching staff, by the club, by the owner, and I think he feels fully invested.”
Dan Itel coves the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.