PORTLAND, Ore. – When Darlington Nagbe arrived in MLS in 2011, his talent was undeniable.
The No. 2 overall pick of the Portland Timbers in that year's SuperDraft had a way with the ball that almost seemed second nature. Top that with speed, agility and an international pedigree -- his father, Joe, played professional soccer in Europe and represented Liberia -- and it seemed Nagbe had all the ingredients to become one of the best in the league.
In 2013, he finally tapped into some of that potential in consistent fashion, scoring a career-high nine goals. Last year, though he scored only one goal, he recorded a career high seven assists.
“I think it was a funny year for him a little bit,” Timbers head coach Caleb Porter said on Saturday at Providence Park, a day after kicking off preseason camp. “Whether that was him not scoring and the monkey on his back, so maybe for him it was dealing with that pressure for the first time, maybe that was a part of it.”
There was, however, another factor that may have played a role in Nagbe’s regression, and both Porter and the player himself addressed it: Nagbe and his wife had just celebrated the birth of their first child a few weeks before Portland’s 2014 preseason camp.
His mind, understandably, may have been elsewhere.
“These guys are still human beings,” Porter said. “Ultimately, he’s a pro soccer player and he’s got to figure it out; there’s no excuse.
“He looks night and day different coming in this year from last year. Last year, it was two weeks after having a baby. You could tell his head was focused on the baby. Do you blame him?”
Porter, however, said Nagbe didn’t exactly “struggle” in the typical sense. His scoring was way down, true, but he set a career high in assists and still drew much of the focus from opposing defenses.
“[Athletes] are going to have years that are outliers, so I thought for him that was maybe an outlier year in terms of production and the way the goals fell,” Porter said. “It just didn’t fall for him, and I think it did play on his mind a little bit.”
Nagbe said he did more preparation work this offseason than he did last year, and that he feels like he has more time to focus on his game.
“Obviously, having my daughter and just wanting to spend more time with her,” Nagbe said with regards to last season.
Now, there’s perhaps more pressure on Nagbe than at any point since Porter came on board ahead of the 2013 season. With one of Portland’s best attacking player, Diego Valeri, still recovering from an ACL injury, there’ll be an offensive vacuum to fill. Needless to say, Nagbe returning to his 2013 version, or better, would be most welcome.
“I didn’t listen to it too much,” Nagbe said of the talk around his perceived struggles. “I don’t read too much about anything. I just went out there and tried to keep doing what I’m doing, which is try to help the team create chances.”
And, of course, there’s the carrot of a possible US national team callup dangling when he becomes eligible in September. Nagbe is a Liberian citizen, but was raised in the United States.
“I feel like the better the team does, the more recognition everyone gets," Nagbe said. "So [we] definitely want to do better as a team, and if I get a call-up that’d be great also."
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.