There was never any doubt that Darlington Nagbe had talent. Talent is what made him the national player of the year in college, and it is what earned him goal of the year honors in his rookie season in Major League Soccer. It is also what drew the attention of U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who threw Nagbe into two games this month almost as soon as the ink on his new citizenship papers was dry.
No, Nagbe's talent has long been clear. The only question — the eternal question about Nagbe — has been where he should play.
"Darlington has been an enigma, even for me, to find the right position, and I've known him nearly 10 years," said Portland Timbers coach Caleb Porter, who also coached Nagbe at the University of Akron. "It's just that he doesn't fit a position. For really special players, unfortunately, there are formations. If you adopt really rigid formations, then the player doesn't fit."
Early in his career, Porter had used Nagbe either out wide or in an advanced attacking position. But after the Timbers missed the playoffs in 2014, and with the team struggling again early this season, Porter made a change: Nagbe, he decided, would be deployed in a withdrawn, box-to-box role that would allow him to be more involved and get more touches with the ball.
The switch changed the course of Portland's season. Now, with Nagbe, 25, emerging as a reliable two-way cog in Portland's midfield, the Timbers are hitting their stride: Portland is 7-1-2 in its past 10 games, outscoring opponents, 21-10. After a 2-2 tie with top-seeded FC Dallas in the second leg of the Western Conference final Sunday, the Timbers gained their first MLS championship game appearance.
"It's amazing when you watch him — the tight spaces he is in and his completion rate on passes and just dribbling by guys," the Timbers' Jack Jewsbury said. "He's been a game-changer the past few months."
Portland is not the only team benefiting from Nagbe's rise. Two months after his citizenship came through, Nagbe made his debut for the U.S. national team in two World Cup qualifiers last month. The pathway to U.S. citizenship wasn't easy. Born in Liberia during its civil war, Nagbe stayed behind with his mother while his father, Joe, a mainstay with Liberia's national team, played in Europe.
"At nights, she was hearing gunshots, and there was no electricity," Nagbe said. "My older brother was 3, and she was pregnant with me. ... They managed a way to stay together, stay alive, and flee the country."
Once they left Liberia, the Nagbes bounced from France to Greece to Switzerland to — in the one move not involving Joe's playing career — Cleveland. Early in his Akron tenure, Porter got a call from Nagbe's youth coach, imploring him to scout Nagbe. When he did, Porter described Nagbe's performance as "jaw-dropping."
"He is world class technically, and I mean that," Porter said. "When you compare him to some of the best players in this country — national team guys — he has composure on the ball that they don't have. Now, he is missing some other things, but I think those things will come with a new challenge and a new environment."
The biggest pressure, though, may be off. The acquisition of citizenship may be why, as Nagbe ran onto the field for his national team debut, he smiled ear to ear. "I have a little girl now, and I want her dreams to come true, too," he said. "I was put into a situation for our dreams to come true, and I am lucky to have it."