BEAVERTON, Ore. – When Darlington Nagbe looks back on November 2015, he may very well consider it to be one of his life’s seminal moments – at least in relation to his professional soccer career.
Nagbe received his first US national team call-up for a pair of World Cup qualifiers and received the first two caps of his international career. And now that he’s back in the Rose City, the 25-year-old midfielder will play a critical role leading his club, the Portland Timbers, into the Western Conference Championship against FC Dallas, with the first leg set to kick off Sunday in front of his loyal support at Providence Park (4:30 pm PT, FS1, FOX Deportes in US, TSN5 in Canada).
“It was good. It was fun,” Nagbe said Friday after his first training session with the Timbers at the team facility since he came on as a second-half substitute in the USMNT’s win over St. Vincent and the Grenadines last Friday and draw against Trinidad & Tobago on Tuesday. “I got to meet a lot of good players, a lot of guys I’ve played against. … It was fun, definitely cool getting a chance to put on the Red, White and Blue kit.”
Nagbe’s 48 minutes of action in the two games may have been relatively uneventful, but for someone who has long anticipated his US citizenship – the native of Liberia was naturalized only two months ago – it was a memorable few days.
It’s significance was evident form the wide grin Nagbe was unable to contain when he made his debut in the 6-1 win over St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
“Just the whole process of getting my citizenship and my family and all of that and finally getting a chance to wear the colors,” Nagbe said when asked what was going through his mind in his debut. “So, exciting.”
Timbers head coach Caleb Porter, who has known Nagbe since he was a teenager and first coached him at the University of Akron, was of course watching both games intently. He said the fact that Nagbe played is a good sign for his future with the program.
“It was great for him to get into a camp and end up playing,” Porter said. “A lot of times you get the call-up and you’re excited about it and you don’t ever play. Then that honeymoon quickly wears off of being this national team guy. So for him to go into his first camp, get his first two caps says a lot about how well he did.”
Porter said he expects his time on the international stage to bolster his confidence, something that has notably increased over the past few months since being shifted to central midfield. Playing as a box-to-box midfielder in the team’s final three regular-season games, with Porter shifting the formation to a 4-3-3/4-1-4-1 hybrid, Nagbe scored three goals and recorded an assist, seeing much more time on the ball in a playmaking role.
He’ll be relied upon even more Sunday, when he steps into the suspended Diego Valeri’s No. 10 position.
“Couple years ago, maybe even early in the year – you know we played him at the 10 a lot early in the year when Valeri was out – and I’m not sure he was quite ready to carry the team,” Porter said. “But I think he is now.”
Now, not only will Nagbe eye success by leading the Timbers to their first MLS Cup final, but he also hopes to grow as an international player with a continued role with the USMNT.
“I just told [USMNT head coach Jurgen Klinsmann] thank you for the invite and thanks for the opportunity to get my first two caps,” Nagbe said of how he left things with the national team when camp broke. “And he just told me I did a good job and he’ll enjoy working with me again.”
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.