Despite a sports hernia injury, Portland forward Darlington Nagbe arrives with high hopes and a lot of fanfare.
BEAVERTON, Ore. — Darlington Nagbe came to MLS heralded, acclaimed and celebrated.
The No. 2 overall draft pick by the Portland Timbers is raved about by his new coach, his old college coach, teammates and executives. With nine goals and 13 assists last season, Nagbe was voted the NCAA’s best player and led Akron to a national championship. Many think he’s the favorite to win MLS Rookie of the Year.
But impeccable skill on the ball isn’t what’s most impressive about Nagbe. What stands out is the 20-year-old’s selfless attitude and committed work ethic, things that don’t always accompany touted prospects.
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“He’s got a very level head on his shoulders; (he’s) a great person,” said Timbers general manager Gavin Wilkinson. “He is a special player technically and physically, and we hope he sets the league on fire.”
The Timbers believe they have the consummate franchise player, a dynamic attacking midfielder who can be the face of this expansion franchise for years.
Veteran goalkeeper Troy Perkins, who was a D.C. United teammate of former prodigy Freddy Adu, thinks Nagbe has the mental makeup to fulfill his potential.
“Guys who have done the things he’s done, usually they bust,” Perkins said. “We see it 90 percent of the time: they don’t fulfill what they’re supposed to. He works his butt off every day. He’s quiet. He comes to training with a good mentality and listens to everyone. Everyone is happy to have him. … He has no ego. He has no opinion of himself, which is fantastic.”
This week Nagbe suffered his first setback when he learned he’ll need sports hernia surgery Friday. He’s expected to miss two to four weeks, but that hasn’t dampened expectations.
Coach John Spencer sees him as the perfect fit for a team that hopes to play entertaining, offensive-minded soccer. Spencer, Wilkinson and the rest of the Timbers’ front office hoped that he’d fall to them with the second pick in the 2011 MLS SuperDraft. Those wishes came true when Vancouver picked 17-year-old forward Omar Salgado.
Nagbe was as excited as his future employers. He even researched Portland online before the draft, to learn as much as he could about his prospective home.
“It’s lived up to everything,” said Nagbe, who was born in Liberia and grew up idolizing Thierry Henry. “The people are nice. The city is not too big, not too small. It’s the right size; it’s cozy. I’m liking it so far.”
The location also puts him near one of his best friends from college, Sounders FC midfielder Steve Zakuani. At Akron, that pair and forward Teal Bunbury grew close off the field and remain in touch.
Earlier in preseason, Zakuani joked he left college early for MLS because he feared Nagbe would steal his starting spot.
Nagbe laughs when told the story.
“He’s a clown. He always tells me, ‘You’re better than me,’ ” Nagbe said of Zakuani. “I’m like, ‘Nah, I’m not better than you.’ Hopefully I am better than him one day, but I have a long way to go. If I could do what he’s done, I’d be pleased.”
Unassuming goals for an emerging star.
Joshua Mayers: 206-464-3184 or firstname.lastname@example.org