MARIETTA, Ga. — It’s easy to say now, looking at where the Portland Timbers and Atlanta United FC are, that Darlington Nagbe would’ve played on Major League Soccer’s biggest stage regardless of which kit he wore in 2018.
“We’ve been joking with him this week,” Nagbe’s Atlanta teammate Greg Garza said. “He probably could have stayed there and he would’ve been in the same position. It wouldn’t have mattered, he would’ve played in another MLS Cup.”
Nagbe, 28, spent the first seven years of his professional soccer career in Portland. The club spent a first-round MLS SuperDraft pick on him in 2011, selecting the dynamic midfielder out of the University of Akron, where he helped the Zips win a College Cup. In 2015, with his college coach, Caleb Porter, now giving orders from Portland’s sideline, Nagbe helped the Timbers win their first MLS Cup.
But a year ago, Porter decided it was time to leave the Timbers. And shortly after, Nagbe did too. He requested a transfer and ended up in Atlanta. To acquire Nagbe’s services, Atlanta sent more than $1 million in allocation funds to the Timbers.
And now, standing between him and his second MLS Cup are the Timbers, a team full of his friends supported by a fan base he remains thankful for.
“It means a lot. I got there when I was 19 or 20. I got married there, I had my kids there,” Nagbe said of Portland during a a pre-MLS Cup practice Thursday at Atlanta United’s training grounds. “My whole adult life has pretty much happened there, so it will always feel like a home to me. I love the city, I love the fans and everything they did for me and I’m grateful for it.”
Saturday will mark the second time the Timbers and the Five Stripes meet this season. Nagbe started in the first, a 1-1 draw in Atlanta on June 24, but he left the contest with an adductor injury that forced him to miss 10 games.
He admits now that facing the Timbers while wearing a different kit for the first time was a bit odd.
“It was different. It was surreal. Just wearing that jersey for my entire career, then switching up and playing against them, it was weird,” Nagbe said. “A whole season has gone by now, so I’m a little more used to it.”
In seven seasons with the Timbers, Nagbe scored 27 goals, added 30 assists, won the Goal of the Year award as a rookie, twice won the Fair Play award and was an MLS All-Star.
When asked why he wanted to come to Atlanta, Nagbe cited coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino, the players already on the team and the location, with Atlanta about 1,750 miles closer to his family in Ohio
Since arriving in Atlanta, Nagbe has helped take the Five Stripes to new heights. They scored 70 goals this season, grabbed the No. 2 seed in the playoffs and qualified for the Concacaf Champions League. Nagbe helped create chances for Josef Martinez’s record-setting MVP season and brought stability, playmaking and leadership to Atlanta’s midfield.
“Darlington this year has given us that pause and balance in midfield,” Martino said through a translator. “Something we didn’t have last year.”
While Martinez, Miguel Almiron and Hector “Tito” Villalba are talented players that other MLS elites want to play alongside, Nagbe also looked forward to sharing a pitch with Atlanta’s captain, veteran defender Michael Parkhurst.
“He surprised me the most,” Nagbe said of Parkhurst. “I knew he was a great player, but getting the chance to play with him … He’s just so solid defensively, the way he sees the game and reads the game. I’m having fun playing with him.”
Parkhurst was on the wrong end of the 2015 MLS Cup, his Columbus Crew SC squad falling 2-1 to Nagbe’s Timbers.
“The two goals were kind of unusual,” Nagbe said of that 2015 final, in which the Timbers scored in the first and seventh minutes. “I’m happy (Parkhurst) is on my team now, and I’m sure vice-versa.”
Said Parkhurst: “I remember he played a big role in the ball being out of bounds, and the team kept on playing. We’ve joked about that since. Darlington’s a player that sometimes, if you don’t watch him specifically, then you might not notice him, but he’s so valuable to every team that he’s on as the link between the defense and the offense. He’s so good in possession and he’s able to find forwards and help defenders out of pressure. He does a lot for the team. I’m glad that he’s on my side this time.”
In some ways, the 2015 Timbers and Portland’s current squad are alike, in that they were at times inconsistent during the regular season before breaking off runs to the MLS Cup. The 2015 team lost or drew in five-of-six games between Aug. 21 and Oct. 3 before winning three straight to end the regular season. The third-seeded Timbers then won in the knockout round on penalties and topped Vancouver and FC Dallas before beating Columbus in the final.
This Portland team, coached by Giovanni Savarese, went 3-3-1 in their final six games and limped into the playoffs as a fifth seed. But the Timbers topped FC Dallas on the road in the knockout round, then beat Seattle and Kansas City on their way to Atlanta.
“They’re heating up at the right time,” Nagbe said. “They’ve done well. I think everyone has belief over there, and we have belief as well, so it will make for a great game.”
Nagbe said he still keeps in touch with some Portland players, such as Alvas Powell and Diego Valeri. He said that he and Powell have exchanged a “little banter” leading up to the game. Of Valeri, Nagbe said he’s looking forward to seeing him, but not looking forward to playing against him.
“It’ll be fun. No matter who you’re playing, you’re up for it. I got to play against my guys, my friends, but I’m looking forward to it, and I’m sure they are,” Nagbe said. “I think in the final, anything can happen. No matter which team is seen as the better team or the underdog. In the final, anything goes.”