Darlington Nagbe: Out of this World, but Down to Earth

Let’s start on a miserably rainy, spring morning at a McDonald’s somewhere between

Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio.

It’s
2008 and I’m an 18-year-old youth player who has just joined a new club team, a
better club team, two hours from where I live in order to enhance my game
before I start playing at the collegiate level in the upcoming autumn. The team
bus has pulled off the throughway so that we players can grab a bite to eat
before we’re due to play at Columbus Crew stadium in a couple hours’ time.
Comfortably warm, folded into my seat near the middle of the bus, and engulfed
in my cozy hoodie, I’m reluctant to exit the coach with the streamline of my
new hungry teammates. Accompanied by two friends from my hometown who have made
the same decision I have to join this team mid-way through the U.S. Development
Academy season, we creep to the end of a very long line. The distant cashiers’
counter is just out of sight beyond the horizon.

It
was, in spurts, intimidating – joining a team of players who have been playing
with each other since they were twelve, who are all much better than the
teammates that I left behind. Integrating into part of the squad both on the
field and into the team personality hasn’t exactly been a seamless transition
at this point. I’ve only trained a handful of times and there hasn’t been any
key moments where I’ve gotten to know anybody else on a personal level.

The
McMuffin line is inching along, though. Those who have been served are quick to
grab their orders and retreat back to the comfort of the team bus. All except
for one. This boy grabs his food off the counter and makes a U-turn to the back
of the line, headed right at us. As friendly as can be, he strikes up a
conversation and gets to know us for the next ten minutes until we all have our
breakfast and can make our way back to the coach together. His name is
Darlington Nagbe.

Now
fast forward to last week. On November 13th Darlington Nagbe earned his first
cap for the United States National Team against St. Vincent & the
Grenadines in St. Louis. It’s been a long anticipated appearance for “D,” as he
was known back on our team in Cleveland. Sublimely talented, winner of College
Soccer’s Hermann Trophy in 2010, and now Portland Timbers’ midfield maestro, the
only thing standing between Nagbe and the national team was his U.S.
citizenship. Born in Liberia in a time of civil unrest, Darlington spent most
of his formative years bouncing around Europe in order to follow the
professional career of his father. Soon after that, his mother moved the family
to Cleveland where our stories briefly intercepted.

Now
a full-fledged American citizen as of this September and on the verge of a
breakthrough to the next level in his career, the kid from Cleveland has been
the talk of many media features. To my surprise many of these analytical
articles have depicted Darlington as a man with a touch of gold (which is true),
but his personality as introverted and shy. Questions have arisen as to whether
or not he has the personality to be a top player, a national team player.

If
I may, I’d like to counter these claims. Darlington Nagbe is humble and kind
compared to a lot of professional players or professional athletes in general
who have used their explosive A1 personalities to achieve the level their
playing at. He’s a breath of fresh air amongst a population of pros who often
come across as egotistical and regrettably unfiltered. Nagbe is the modest,
unpretentious, and a real family man, often populating his social media feed
with pictures of his loved ones. And certainly not to be undermined he’s the
quality of player that the States doesn’t often breed. He’s unique in many
senses because it’s not his mouth that does the talking; it’s his feet.

It
was seen in flashes during his two first international cameos. Darlington’s
feet move as quickly as his mind with a dexterity that more established names
in the national pool would envy. If I flashback to that game in Columbus in
2008, McDonald’s breakfast now hours behind us, I can recall D being tripped
and sent tumbling onto the wet grass as he bamboozled some poor defender on the
flank. But when the whistle didn’t sound, he then proceeded to dribble around
the next player… from his knees!

If
you haven’t seen the MLS goal of the year from 2011, it’s more than worth your
time. Just summon YouTube. A free kick from the far sideline is punched away by
the Vancouver Whitecaps goalkeeper to an aptly position Darlington Nagbe beyond
the edge of the penalty area. The rookie Nagbe caresses the clearance on the
full into a juggle, takes another touch for good measure, and smashes a frozen
rope into the top corner. It’s a volley that if Messi or Ronaldo scored, the
Earth would collapse in on itself. FourFourTwo
would eventually feature the piece in their print edition.

So
my plea to American supporters is to cheer on Darlington because he has the
skill to help the national team. This is a guy you should be rooting for. Have
youth players watch him because he has the abilities they should strive to
emulate. But most importantly have your children study him because he is a role
model – a supremely gifted young gentleman with the personality to match.

Words by Bobby Mohr from the United States. 

THE TURF