By THOMAS FLOYD
Darlington Nagbe may only have five MLS goals to his name, but he has sure made the most of them.
Last year, the Portland Timbers midfielder-forward saw his first career strike — a spectacular juggle-and-volley effort against Sporting Kansas City — claim league Goal of the Year honors. And this season, during a 3-2 loss to Real Salt Lake on March 31, the 21-year-old notched about as stunning a brace as one will see, using a deft touch and driven shot to score the first goal before setting himself up for a wicked volley on the second.
As Jeld-Wen Field erupted, Timbers TV analyst Robbie Earle may have put it best: "MLS has found a new star."
"It doesn't surprise me at all," said D.C. United midfielder Perry Kitchen, Nagbe's teammate at the University of Akron. "He would do that in college all the time in practice, hit upper-90 shots and just walk off like it was no big deal."
After hernia surgery slowed the start to his rookie campaign, Nagbe went on to record two goals and three assists in 28 appearances (21 starts) in 2011. But in six matches this season, Nagbe has already netted three tallies to surpass that goal total.
While he only went the full 90 minutes once all of last season, Nagbe has gone the distance in Portland's past four games, playing on the flank or as a withdrawn forward for coach John Spencer.
In handling his increased success and the attention that has come with it, Nagbe said, "I just try to be modest."
Adding fuel to Nagbe's fire has been his deep desire to experience the playoffs after Portland was eliminated from contention in the final week of last year's regular season. With the Timbers sitting at the bottom of the Western Conference with a 1-4-1 record, Nagbe knows he and his team need to pick up the pace if they are going to achieve that goal.
"We've had a rough couple of games, but as a team we're not looking back — we're just looking to move on, turn things around and make the playoffs," Nagbe said. "Watching the playoff games on TV, it's a bad feeling. You want to be out there competing."
For Nagbe, his hot start is an indication that he may be ready to live up to the expectations that made him the No. 2 overall pick in last year's MLS SuperDraft after he led Akron to a national title in 2010, claiming the Hermann Trophy along the way.
"He's a young player that's stepped into a big league in MLS and done well for himself," said Portland midfielder Freddie Braun, a good friend of Nagbe's off the field. "I still think there's a lot more to see from him. And we're definitely going to see it."
Nagbe's flashy play has naturally led to speculation about his international prospects. A Liberia native who moved to the United States at age 11 but is not yet a citizen, Nagbe said he recently has had minimal contact with the Liberian federation and none with the U.S. program. Perhaps further tilting the odds in Liberia's favor is the fact that Nagbe's father, Joe, is a former captain of the West African country's national team.
Nagbe, however, noted he hasn't spent much time thinking about the international game just yet.
"I've just been trying to become a better player," Nagbe said. "But definitely, it would interest me down the road. I think it's everyone's dream to be in a World Cup."
It's a focused-on-the-field mentality that is clearly evident in Nagbe's approach to the game. While he's a calm, somewhat withdrawn personality away from the pitch, there's little doubt about his competitive nature once game time rolls around.
"He's just a real nice, chill kind of guy," Braun said. "But he definitely brings the right attitude. When everyone looks at Darlington, everybody knows that he wants to win."
To make that happen more often, Nagbe said his personal objective remains what it has been for most of his career: "Be more dangerous and create more chances."
If he succeeds in doing so, consider the rest of MLS properly warned.