Age at MLS Cup: 30
Hometown: Lakewood, OH
ALL COMPETITIONS IN 2020:
This sums up Darlington Nagbe pretty well: University of Akron? Championship. Portland Timbers? Championship. Atlanta United? Championship. Columbus Crew? Championship. In three of those four instances (all but Atlanta), he won the title with Caleb Porter as his coach. For all that he has accomplished as a coach, Porter’s greatest gift might be his relationship with Nagbe. The two win wherever they go, and when Porter came to Columbus, many dreamed that Nagbe would soon follow, not only to play for Porter again, but to return to his home state. The Lakewood native from suburban Cleveland did just that, and he put his stamp on a historic Crew season with his impossibly calm and skillful play in the midfield, by scoring the MLS Goal of the Year, and then coming through with clutch playoff goal against the Red Bulls. Even the incalculably devastating specter of his COVID-19 absence from MLS Cup made the Crew’s ultimate 3-0 triumph, and the performance of 19-year-old Aidan Morris, all the more Massive. Darlington Nagbe is so legendary on the field that his mere reputation can forge legends when he’s not.
THROUGH JOSH’S EYES
“Darlington is the key to every lock. As a defender, if you’re trying to build out of the back and keep the ball in general, I feel there is absolutely nobody else in the league that can compare to him. Once he gets the ball, it’s like everyone can kind of relax because you know he’s either going to break the press with a dribble, or stop and start and make a nice easy pass. It’s like he’s never been rushed in his life. I’ve known him since he was a young kid playing for Internationals in Cleveland. He’s been playing that way the whole time. Even though the game is flying around, he’s one the true constant in the game. The game just flows through him. There’s a reason every team he has been on has played in big games and won championships. I truly think he’s a world-class talent.
“He was two age groups below me at Internationals. But with Internationals, you always support the groups above and below you. I’m good friends with Michael Nanchoff, and his dad and uncle (George and Louie Nanchoff, respectively, who played for the Cleveland Force and the USMNT) started Internationals. I would always go see Michael, and Darlington would be playing up, so I would see him there. And then we played on the same Internationals club team in the PDL. I remember a summer when I was in college and Darlington was just breaking out. He had an insane amount of talent. Seven of our 11 starters went on to play in MLS, including Steve Zakuani, who was playing for Akron. It was a speed show. It was a fun summer. We would whip teams. We also had Justin Morrow, Michael Nanchoff, Chris Korb, and Ben Zemanski. We were loaded.”
[NOTE: Entering the 2021 season, that 2008 Cleveland Internationals PDL lineup has gone on to rack up 1,089 MLS regular season appearances and counting. Loaded indeed! That 2008 team went 10-3-3 with 41 goals scored and just 19 conceded. They beat the Toronto Lynx in the playoffs on the strength of goals from Nagbe and Zemanski, but then lost to eventual PDL champion Thunder Bay.]
“I think Harry and Darlington are the two guys on the team that everybody connects with. Darlington might be the quietest guy on the team. He hardly says anything, but he’s always in a good mood. He’s just a great guy on and off the field. A true family man. He’s an absolute pleasure to be around and it changed everything when he came to the team.
“When you see him play, there’s just no other option. Everybody who plays with him or against him knows that he’s one of the best players on the field every single game. It’s so obvious to everybody. I remember down in the bubble and we were playing against Atlanta, and Lucas was out for the game. Darlington got the ball and did a couple stops and starts while he was being pressed. Any other player passes it or panics in those situations, but he’s at the top of the box and he just does a little stop and start and completely spun the guy around and broke the pressure and then just casually went up the field and spread the ball to the other side. I was sitting next to Lucas, and I don’t even know if he knew that anybody heard, but he was just shocked. He just shook his head and said, ‘The game, it’s so easy for him.’ I don’t think he was even saying it to anybody, even though he said it in English. If Lucas is saying the game is easy for the guy…I mean…that just shows what he’s able to do.
“I’ve been trying to get Darlington on my team since he came into the league. Every offseason, every time I would see him, I would say he needs to come to Columbus. He’s such a hometown guy. He always respected where he was playing, but I think he had a dream of coming back to Ohio and playing close to his family. So every offseason, I would ask, ‘What’s your contract? Like, when can you come?’ Getting Caleb, that was the first stage of landing Darlington here. (laughs.) I would tell Caleb and his assistant Pablo that I’ve been trying to get Darlington here. They would just laugh. But I knew they wanted Darlington. Every coach wants Darlington. He’s way too special. Finally, when I heard about the trade and knew he was coming, I mean, like I said, there’s a reason where every place he goes they immediately become top of the league. He’s that special of a player.
“When we were in the bubble, I remember him having a hard time being away from his family. And I remember thinking that a gifted player like that, one of the reasons I love Darlington so much is because what truly matters in life is outside of soccer. We’re all gifted with natural abilities to make it to this level and to perform at this level, but if you take that away, what truly matters is family. Things outside of soccer are most important. Darlington is someone who displays that every single day. He’s insanely gifted and he works his butt off and he’ll never cheat a day, so it’s not like he’s coasting. That’s not how he works. But when the final whistle blows at training or a game, he cannot wait to get back to his family. To me, that says everything about him. There’s a reason he has turned down some offers in Europe and there’s a reason he’s back in Ohio. That’s because he’s such a family man. I have such respect for that because he has the talent to literally be in any league in the world. I truly believe that. He’s that gifted. But his love for his family and being around them and being there for them, that’s exactly who Darlington is. It’s so rare to see such a talented player who isn’t totally consumed with the game and realizes that life outside of soccer is important.
“But we NEED to talk about that goal…”
“It was a combination between Ema and G. It kinda squirted away and of course Darlington was in the right position. As soon as he flicked it up, and Ema ran behind him and dragged a defender away so Darlington had space, and as soon as he popped it up to that certain height, I remember saying ‘crack it.’ But Darlington almost never shoots from outside the box. If he’s in the box, okay, he might shoot a couple, but he almost never shoots from outside the box unless it’s going to be Goal of the Year. We’ve seen him in Portland hit the goal of the year on an incredible juggle and volley.”
“On this one (2020), he popped it up perfectly and I’m screaming ‘crack it!’ As soon as he hit it, I had such a good view of it. He hit it so clean and it swerved a little bit, so you don’t know if it’s going to miss the goal or not. As soon as it bangs off the post and goes in, when goals like that happen, you almost feel like those are your goals. You’re so excited that it almost feels like you scored. I just remember the chase was on after that. I wanted to grab him, but he’s one of the fastest guys on the field, so you have to wait until he slows down or until enough other guys grab him and slow him down. I remember being over at the sideline and looking at Caleb and our assistant coach Pablo and shaking my head like, ‘What the hell was that?’ I’m so glad that guy’s on our team.
“I had a great angle on it and it was awesome watch. As soon as he popped it up, it’s one of those plays where if you’ve been around the game long enough, you know that it sat up there so nicely for him. Of course, every touch he has is the perfect weight and the perfect timing. His passes are always so clean. He’s just an incredible talent. To see him pull that off, on one hand it’s surprising because he doesn’t shoot that often, but at the same time, you’re not surprised because of who hit it. He always hits the ball so clean.
“It was an important goal too because we were up 1-0 on Chicago. It was one of those games where you feel like you’re in control, but you and I have both seen enough MLS games to know where it’s one mistake or one wonder-goal and then all of a sudden it’s tied up and they have all the momentum and are looking for more. As soon as that goal went in, I remember sprinting past their players and you could just tell they were dejected. They were probably thinking they could still steal a point or maybe all three, but when that went in, I mean, it’s game over. I just heard the Sportscenter Top 10 in my head. Just an incredible goal from an incredible player. That playoff goal against New York, that was a big goal but he’ll score a few of those type of goals. The ones outside the box, he only hits it if it will be Goal of the Year.”
[NOTE: To see a clickable list of earlier installments of this Josh Williams series or other MLS Cup related posts, please click HERE.]
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