Last Sunday, in a match against Seattle Sounders FC, Darlington Nagbe achieved a milestone that no player in any of the club’s eras ever has: 200 games played in a Portland Timbers uniform.
After being selected second overall in the 2011 MLS SuperDraft—the club’s first ever draft pick—Nagbe made his pro debut coming on as a substitute in a 1-1 draw against the New England Revolution on April 2, 2011. Since that time, Nagbe has earned the MLS Goal of the Year Award in 2011, was a two-time MLS Fair Play Award winner in 2013 and 2015, was named to his first MLS All-Star team in 2016 and, most notably, helped the Timbers to their first-ever MLS Cup in 2015. Nagbe has scored 26 goals and recorded 28 assists during his MLS career. However, accomplishing those feats in Portland has made the experience even more special for him.
“Coming out of the draft, Portland is where I wanted to come,” Nagbe said in a recent interview after a team training session. “So being here in the beginning and the first couple years and then being able to win a championship two years ago in 2015 was amazing.”
Nagbe’s accomplishment is also significant as he is the second youngest player to hit 200 MLS games with one team and is only one of four top-three SuperDraft selections to hit 200 games with the team that drafted him, joining Nick Garcia, Chad Marshall, and Tony Beltran. When asked about what the milestone means to him on a personal level, Darlington humbly appreciates his experience in the context of those who have surrounded him on his journey.
“It means a lot because of the great players that we have here, especially Diego Chara—we came in together. [He is] one of my favorite players, someone I look up to” he said. Chara, the club’s first-ever Designated Player signing and only seven games away himself from 200 matches with the club, joined the team in the spring of 2011 alongside Nagbe. The Colombian midfielder has been someone Nagbe respected ever since.
“From the first minute he came in, he was someone I really admired,” said Nagbe. “I’m lucky I’ve been playing with him as long as I have.”
And while Chara is one of many Timbers players who made in impact on Nagbe over his time in MLS, there was another player on a different team who he clearly admired as well.
“Coming into the league, Landon Donovan was a huge one, obviously someone we all look up to, especially being an attacker,” he said.
There’s been many great team memories for Nagbe, including winning the 2015 MLS Cup, which he aspires to do again, but it’s not his only favorite one. In 2013, the team knocked Seattle out of the playoffs in the Western Conference semifinals with Nagbe scoring a key goal on the road in the first leg of the two-game series.
“That was our first time in the playoffs and that’s our power rival so, that’s another great memory I have,” he said with a smile.
As the seasons have progressed, so too has Nagbe’s role on the team, developing both on and off the field. For him, he thinks that run to the 2015 MLS Cup was a big moment of growth for him as an emerging leader on the team. It’s a role he now embraces with characteristic humbleness.
“When we won the championship, I wouldn’t say I felt like the leader, but I’d say I felt like one of the leaders on the team,” he said. “Which is huge, I think you always need more than one specific leader.”
Living in Portland and happily married to his college sweetheart with whom the couple has two children, Nagbe is no longer the fresh-faced rookie of 2011 who came to Portland out of the University of Akron as the highly-touted 2010 Hermann Trophy winner. But if he could go back in time and share what he knows now with his younger self, Nagbe says his advice would be pretty simple.
“Just be patient. Relax. Everything happens for a reason and just continue to do what you’re doing.”