Illustration: Alvar Sirlin

Howler X Timbers | The Salty Dog and the Piano Player: Jack Jewsbury and Darlington Nagbe helped influence Portland soccer in MLS

Editor’s note: This season, Timbers.com and Howler Magazine have collaborated on a special series that explores soccer in Portland and the city’s influence on the game in the United States and beyond. Presenting our sixth and final story in the series, we tell examine the impact that Timbers Darlington Nagbe--the team's first-ever MLS SuperDraft selection--and Jack Jewsbury--one of the Timbers' original players--and how they helped form the culture of the club in the modern era.

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It’s July 2011, midway through the Portland Timbers’ first season in Major League Soccer. Just before halftime against Sporting Kansas City and down 2-0 at home, the Timbers draw a foul along the left-hand touchline, 15 yards outside the box. The sell-out crowd at the then-named JELD-WEN Field is raucous and restless despite the scoreline, and the fans rise to their feet as Jack Jewsbury, the club’s captain and leading scorer, steps up to take the free kick. 

Jewsbury sails a curving cross treacherously into the area, forcing KC goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen to punch the ball out of danger. It only gets as far as the right foot of Darlington Nagbe, who is perched on the edge of the box. With the control of a young Tiger Woods, the 20-year-old rookie takes it out of the air with his first touch, juggles it again, and then sends it screaming into the top-left corner in what looks in replays like a genuine attempt to break the sound barrier.

That goal was a lot of things. It was Nagbe’s first professional goal; the 2011 MLS Goal of the Year; the most indelible and unforgettable moment in a fitfully exciting first season that saw the upstart Timbers finish just one spot out of the playoffs. Perhaps most important, it was the first true instance of on-field connection between Jewsbury and Nagbe, two players who would come to help define the Timbers in the years ahead.

Four seasons later—on October 25th, 2015, the final day of the MLS season—the Timbers win another free kick a few yards outside the box, just four minutes into their home match against the Colorado Rapids. The sold-out crowd at what’s now called Providence Park again rises to its feet, but this time it’s Nagbe placing the ball, stepping back, sizing up the distance, and confidently, decisively, almost casually, lasering the ball through—not over—the wall and into the back of the net.

Jewsbury leaps up from the bench, cheering. It’s his first appearance on the lineup sheet in over two weeks after fighting his way back from a foot injury. In the 50th minute, with Portland up 2–1 thanks to a second Nagbe goal, Jewsbury enters the game to settle the team defensively and lock down a crucial victory. After a Jorge Villafana goal and Fanendo Adi chest-in later, the Timbers walk out 4–1 winners, completing a dramatic three-game turnaround that vaults them from outside the postseason picture directly into the third seed in the West. 

Yes, their roles have evolved. Nagbe is now a keystone of the Timbers’ electrifying offense; Jewsbury a diligent, reliable stabilizing force on field. They are near-diametric opposites on the career spectrum, with backgrounds and personalities that are just as divergent. But the fact remains: Jewsbury and Nagbe—two of only five holdovers from that original 2011 squad—continue to be the twin pillars of the Portland Timbers. Through their leadership, their vision, their fight on the pitch, they’ve helped cultivate a true club culture and identity. In just five short seasons, they’ve grounded the team with a very respectable early history and paved the way to an even brighter future.

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In March 2011, less than three weeks before the Timbers’ MLS debut, Jack Jewsbury got on a plane to Portland for the very first time. He was 29 years old, coming off eight years and 195 matches with the Kansas City Wizards—the team that drafted and developed him, gave him his first taste of success by claiming the 2004 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, and was based just two-and-a-half hours down the road from his hometown of Springfield, Mo. But after his playing time dipped during the 2010 season, Jewsbury made the tough decision to ask for a trade. 

“I felt like I was right there in the prime of my career,” Jewsbury says. “I wanted to be a big part of the team. So when Portland came calling, it was an unbelievable opportunity.” 

For Gavin Wilkinson, the Timbers’ longtime general manager, Jewsbury was exactly the vocal veteran torchbearer he needed to lead the young team out of infancy and into battle. “He’s a hardy character,” Wilkinson says, “someone who turns in day in and day out—for training, for games—and we wanted that presence within the club.” 


(Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer)

Jewsbury delivered. Three days after his arrival at the club, as Jewsbury suited up for his first preseason game as a Timbers player, against Seattle Sounders FC, head coach John Spencer pulled him aside. “Do you feel comfortable captaining the guys this first game?” Spencer said. 

“I ran with it,” Jewsbury recalls. “It was a new opportunity and responsibility for me, and one that I wanted to make the most of.” 

That inaugural season, Jewsbury led by example. The newly minted captain’s first league goal secured the Timbers’ very first MLS point in a 1–1 tie at New England. He’d go on to score seven more that year, tying him for most on the squad with striker Kenny Cooper, and earned his first MLS All-Star selection. But beyond the statistics, his grind-it-out, leave-everything-on-the-pitch mentality began to rub off on his teammates, and the plucky group managed to pinch massive wins against eventual champions the LA Galaxy and perennial frontrunners Real Salt Lake en route to a dignified 11-14-9 record. The club seemed poised for a breakout season in 2012. 

Instead, Portland fell toward the bottom of the table—eventually finishing 17th out of 19 teams. Coaching changes ensued, and the offseason ushered in major roster moves. By the time Jewsbury arrived at preseason training in the spring of 2013, he was greeted with a new head coach in Caleb Porter and a new role with the club. 

The captain’s armband shifted to new recruit Will Johnson, but Jewsbury was named club captain to acknowledge the respect he still held in the locker room. Porter also transferred Jewsbury to an unfamiliar position to start the season—from attacking midfielder to right back. 

To Jewsbury’s credit, none of the changes phased him. He just did what he’s always done: buckle down, play hard, and perform for the team. “I just want to make it hard on a coach to not put me in the lineup,” Jewsbury says. “Early on [in 2013], we needed a right back and they felt I could fill that void. It wasn’t a position I was necessarily the most comfortable with, but I learned to play it over that year and thought I did fairly well.” 

Well enough, in fact, to earn a starting nod in nearly every game that season, help the Timbers clinch first place in the West and lead them to the MLS Cup Playoffs semifinals. In the two seasons since, Jewsbury has continued to will himself into a vital role and contribute on and off the pitch.

“He’s a guy you want in the lineup,” Porter says of the player he nicknamed “Old Salty Dog” for his tenacity and experience. “He makes everyone around him better. He’s unselfish, and he’ll play wherever we need him to play: right back, holding mid, left back, even center back. He’s a guy that, in the last two years, has made a career out of being a good professional and being ready and continuing to make his impact. He’s a leader. That’s Jack in a nutshell.”

This past May, after the Timbers suffered back-to-back road losses in Houston and Toronto, Jewsbury approached his coach. “We were struggling,” Porter recalls, “and I was trying to figure out how to work ourselves out of it. And I remember Jack coming to me and saying, ‘Hey, listen: What do you think about instead of coming to training on Tuesday, we get a bus and do something different? Let’s go and play [American] football.’” A day after the pigskin outing, Portland bounced back with a 1–0 win over D.C. United. 

“The fact that he would take the ownership to want to do something different and to organize it—I think really shows how much he cares,” Porter continues. “It shows how much of a leader he is. He’s not just thinking about himself. He wants the team to be better. Players like Jack, they’re really what create the culture in the club.” 


Photo: Molly J. Smith

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By the time the Timbers selected Darlington Nagbe with the second overall pick of the 2011 MLS SuperDraft, he’d already lived through more than some players twice his age.
 
At five months old, Nagbe and his older brother Joe escaped war-torn Liberia in the arms of their mother, Somah, to Europe, where their father—also named Joe—was playing professional soccer. For the next 11 years, the elder Joe’s career brought the family from France to Switzerland and then Greece. Somah decided she wanted her children to have an American education, so she moved the boys to Ohio, where Darlington began playing with a local youth club called the Cleveland Internationals.

That’s where Caleb Porter—then the newly appointed soccer coach at the University of Akron—first encountered the 15-year-old. 

“I went out to watch him,” Porter says, “and it literally took me 10 seconds and my jaw dropped. The combination of his explosive athleticism, balance, and skill and creativity was something I’d never seen.” 

A year later, Porter convinced Nagbe to commit to Akron early. In his three seasons of NCAA play, he led the Zips to their first national championship, picking up the MAC Hermann Trophy as the 2010 College Soccer Player of the Year—along with virtually every other accolade—in the process. 

But life in the pros didn’t start out quite so smoothly. Despite occasional flashes of brilliance—that juggling wonder goal against Kansas City, for instance—Nagbe’s first two years as a Timbers player were sometimes marked by the typical inconsistencies of a young player, seen by some as an extension of his naturally reserved, modest nature. It wasn’t until the 2013 season, when he was reunited with Porter in MLS, that his ability finally began to shine through consistently.


Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer

“It’s been great,” Nagbe says of the college reunion. “There’s a chemistry where I know what he’s looking for, I know what he wants from the team—even if he doesn’t say it sometimes. He has a lot of trust and belief in me and I think that goes a long way.” 

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In 2015, Nagbe has been a revelation. Set loose in the middle of the attack, he scours the field with authority, using his touch, speed, and movement to create quality chances like some unholy blend of Luka Modric’s ingenuity with Russell Westbrook’s explosive athleticism.

“There was a moment during the game against the Galaxy,” Porter says, referring to the Timbers’ recent 5-2 win in L.A., “where I looked down the field, and there’s Gerrard and Dos Santos and Robbie Keane, and all I can do is watch Darlington just toy [with them]. He’s around world-class players, and he didn’t look at all out of place. If you’d told me that Darlington was the Premier League player, or the English National Team player, it wouldn’t shock me. I’d say, ‘Yeah, that’s him.’”

For all the praise, however, Porter believes there’s still another level Nagbe has yet to reach. And he knows just the thing to unlock it: in September, Nagbe received his U.S. citizenship; not long after, Porter received a phone call from Jurgen Klinsmann inquiring about his most talented ward. 

“I think he needs that,” Porter says of a potential USMNT call-up. “He needs that next jump, that next challenge, to go to a higher level and push him into the next stage of his career.” 

Nagbe, for his part, remains predictably humble about the prospect. “Everyone dreams about representing their country in any way,” he says, “so for me, it’d be a great experience getting to go there and play with those guys. I’m just another guy that wants to get on the ball and wants to win.” 

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Nine years and an ocean of natural ability separate Jewsbury and Nagbe. Their careers are trending in opposite directions. “You have piano players and piano carriers,” Porter explains. “Darlington is definitely a piano player, and Jack, at this stage of his career, is definitely a piano carrier.”

But on the pitch, those differences are what make the duo such a complementary force. “There’s a lot of respect there,” Porter continues. “Jack would probably be the first to admit that he watches Darlington and wishes he had some of that talent. And I bet Darlington watches Jack and says, ‘I wish I had some of his drive.’”  

It’s true. “From Day One, you could tell he was a special talent,” Jewsbury says of his younger counterpart. “If you’re in a tight spot, you can sometimes get bailed out by passing the ball to Darlington, because he can wiggle his way out of tough situations that other players can’t.” 

“Jack is our anchor,” Nagbe counters. “He keeps our balance and our structure. While he’s been out injured, we’ve really missed his calmness on the pitch.” 

Their leadership styles, too, work in tandem. Where Jewsbury is more of a big-picture presence in the locker room, firing up the group as a whole, Nagbe focuses on the individuals. “Darlington probably never says a word vocally to the whole team,” Porter says, “but he’s got such a big influence on some of the quieter, younger guys like Adi or George Fochive. He seems to embrace them and keep them positive—just putting his arm around them, patting them on the back, telling them ‘Good training’ or ‘Don’t get down’—and that’s huge.” 

It’s away from the game entirely, however, that the two connect on the deepest level. Both men are devoted fathers—Jewsbury has two young girls; Nagbe has a daughter with a son on the way—and it’s brought them closer in ways both sentimental and practical. 

“When I first had my daughter,” Nagbe says with a laugh, “I’d go to Jack with questions about everything: how to clean them up in the bathroom, what age they start getting into activities, that kind of stuff.” 

“When we win games at home and the little ones come onto the pitch to celebrate with us, those are special moments,” Jewsbury adds. “When we’re all done playing this game, those are the snapshots that we’ll look back on and really cherish.” 

Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer

Right now, though, the two are focused on one thing and one thing only. 

“It’s all about going on a run at the right time,” Jewsbury says of the team’s push for the postseason. “I’m proud to wear the jersey. I’m proud to be part of this organization. The buzz in the city around this team is crazy, and it’d be really special to give back to our fans for hanging in there with us these last five years. It’d be huge for us if we could go on a big run.” 

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About the Author:
Yang-Yi Goh is a writer currently based in Toronto. He has written and worked for the likes of GQ, ESPN The Mag, Complex and Men’s Journal.

About the Illustrator:
Brooklyn-based illustrator Alvar Sirlin has a background is in abstract expressionistic oil painting and street art. He has contributed to Howler Magazine and other publications.

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