Darlington Nagbe doesn’t like to talk about himself. If you ask the Columbus Crew SC midfielder about one of his teammates — his partner in crime Artur, for instance — or the tactical side of the game, you are almost certain to get a better answer than if you ask him about his performance or a play he made during a contest.
But when Nagbe scored what is the clear frontrunner for the 2020 MLS Goal of the Year to this point, as he did in the Crew’s Thursday night’s 3-0 win against the Chicago Fire, he had to know the questions were coming.
And they did.
Before Nagbe even left the field, he was already getting asked about the finish. By the time he reached the locker room, his phone was likely on low power after all of his mentions on social media. And then there were the text messages from friends and family.
But in typical Nagbe fashion, the midfielder didn’t want to dwell on his 81st minute strike from nearly 30 yards out that beat the outreached Bobby Shuttleworth, kissed off the post and slammed into the back of the net for a 2-0 lead.
“On the goal, it was kind of a 50/50 ball, so I had to get it over the defender,” Nagbe said postgame. “So I just got it up and it sat nicely and I just took a chance on the shot and luckily it went in.”
For some midfielders who average just three goals per season like Nagbe, “lucky” might be the right word to describe such a finish. But this midfielder, despite scoring just two goals in his last two seasons with Atlanta United, has proven he can be a goal scorer when asked to be.
While finding the back of the net doesn’t come naturally for Nagbe, who generally patrols the midfield and links the defense to the attack as he did on the Black & Gold’s third goal, he can score. In 2012, his second MLS season, Nagbe scored six times and followed that up with a nine-finish campaign the next year while playing some as a winger.
As he settled into his more familiar role in the center of the park under Caleb Porter in Portland, the goals didn’t come as frequently and, after moving to Atlanta prior to the 2018 season, Nagbe was criticized for his lack of scoring.
But Porter, now the coach of the Crew, still recognized Nagbe’s ability when he sent $1.05 million in allocation money to United last offseason to bring the Ohio native, who he also coached in college at Akron, to Columbus.
Nagbe rewarded Porter with, as the head coach described it, “a world-class finish” on Thursday night.
“It’s hard for me to not get excited when I talk about Darlington,” Porter said. “I’m very close with him, obviously off the field as well, because I’ve known him for so long. We have a lot of history together. He’s a top, top player. I think he showed today that he can score goals.
“People forget in Portland, there were times that he played out wide, I think one year he had nine goals there and he’s played the 10 plenty. So he can do it, he can play anywhere. Wherever he plays, he’s going to be good.”
Nagbe has been good through six games with the Crew but, as Porter pointed out, the midfielder has been good his entire MLS career.
And it’s not the first time Nagbe has scored a goal like this one as a professional. During his rookie season in 2011, Nagbe juggled a ball twice and hit a shot on the volley from outside the penalty area for what became the Goal of the Year.
The remarkable finishes were similar, so Porter stopped the postgame press conference to ask Nagbe which was better.
“Man, that’s tough,” Nagbe answered. “I think maybe the crowd and everything in Portland, it might be that one. If there was a crowd here, I’d probably say it would be this one.”
It’s not often that Nagbe has a finish like the one against the Fire, but it’s not often any player scores that type of goal. But when the time is right, Crew fans now know what kind of magic Nagbe can pull out of nowhere.