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Living up to his potential

Rookie Nagbe still the darling of Timbers' plans for future Major League Soccer glory
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Darlington Nagbe (left), the No. 2 overall pick in the MLS Super Draft of 2011, celebrates his goal in last week’s 3-0 win over New England.

Darlington Nagbe came to the Portland Timbers with a world of expectations as the No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 MLS SuperDraft.

'Darlington Nagbe is a top, top, top player, and he's going to be a top player in this league,' Timbers coach John Spencer said, before the team had even played a preseason match. 'Possibly one of the best players to play in Portland in the history of Portland. He's a fantastic soccer player.'

Nagbe's rookie season has been a mix.

The midfielder-striker has had to adjust to the intensity of professional soccer, and an injury hampered him throughout much of the first half of the season. At times, Nagbe has looked like a 21-year-old kid playing against men. At other times, though, Nagbe has been brilliant. He scored a goal in last week's 3-0 home win over New England.

Spencer has not changed his mind about how good Nagbe can be. It is now up to Nagbe to live up to Spencer's expectations.

'I still believe that,' Spencer said, when reminded of his earlier statement. 'Natural ability is one thing you can't coach. He's born with the natural ability. It just depends. Potential only gets you in the door. Performances keep you on the field of the play.

'You can talk about potential, potential, potential. But you've got to have the drive and desire inside you as an individual to really maximize what God has given you. And if you don't have that desire, then you won't fulfill the potential.'

Nagbe has no doubt that he can accomplish all that Spencer expects of him.

'I definitely feel like that's something I can live up to,' Nagbe says. 'But it takes hard work.'

Born in Liberia, Nagbe has soccer in his blood. His father, Joe Nagbe, was captain of the Liberian national team. Darlington Nagbe strived to follow in his father's footsteps and become a professional soccer player.

'Growing up, you always want to be like your father,' he says. 'So, just being able to do what he did, it means a lot to me, and it means a lot to him, also.'

Growing up, Nagbe traveled to many different countries while his father was playing. In America, Nagbe lived in Lakewood, Ohio, a far west suburb of Cleveland. After high school, Nagbe went to the University of Akron.

At Akron, Nagbe scored 19 goals and had 19 assists in 73 matches over three seasons. In 2010, Nagbe led Akron to its first national championship in any sport when the Zips defeated Louisville 1-0 in the College Cup final. Nagbe scored seven goals and had 13 assists that year and won the Hermann Trophy.

Nagbe elected to skip his senior year and enter the MLS SuperDraft. The 5-9, 165-pounder might have been the No. 1 overall selection, but he told the Vancouver Whitecaps that he wanted to play for the Timbers.

'I just told them that I would prefer playing in Portland, but if they picked me I'd gladly play for them without a doubt,' Nagbe says. 'It was peaceful. It wasn't any arguments or anything. I just spoke my mind clearly. I don't know if it affected the decision or not, but I ended up here.'

Spencer says that during preseason Nagbe was the Timbers' best and most consistent player. Then, shortly before the regular season, Nagbe underwent sports hernia surgery to correct a problem he had been having for many years.

'The sports hernia surgery set him back a little bit,' Spencer says.

Nagbe has spent much of the season platooning at the midfield position with Sal Zizzo. Nagbe has occasionally moved up to play striker. He has two assists and two goals. His first goal, against Sporting Kansas City, was spectacular. Nagbe received a pass at the top of the 18-yard box, bounced the ball twice on his foot without letting it touch the pitch and then sent a bullet to the top corner of the far post.

Midfielder Jack Jewsbury is most impressed with Nagbe's improvement on defense.

'Guys that offensively are so talented, they've got to realize that it's got to be on both sides of the ball (in MLS),' Jewsbury says. 'He's learned that over the course of the season. And when he's come in, defensively, his effort has been a ton better. That's a tribute to his professionalism, because he is open to learning new things and hearing what the veterans and coaches have to say.'

Nagbe moved to Portland with his girlfriend, Felicia Houtz. In late July, Nagbe asked Houtz to marry him, and she said yes. Having someone to share his life with has made the transition from the Midwest to the West Coast easier.

'It helps a lot,' Nagbe says. 'When you're frustrated and everything isn't going well, you always have someone to go home to and just get your mind off of soccer, and it's helped a lot.'

With so many life-changing things coming to pass, 2011 has been a huge year for Nagbe. A wedding is in the future and the Timbers are clawing for a playoff spot with four regular-season games remaining. Nagbe is hoping the good times continue.

'My first professional game and I got engaged, it's definitely been the biggest year of my life,' Nagbe says. 'Hopefully it keeps going well.'