Soccer stadiums are loud, really loud sometimes. Saturday was a good example of that when the Columbus Crew beat New York City FC 3-2. After going down early, equalizing, going up, City equalizing and the Black & Gold scoring a match-winner, Lower.com Field was a sea of sound. Sports has a great way of creating those types of moments.
It’s those that take the final shot creating the moments that grab the collective attention. For Columbus, midfielder Lucas Zelarayán and new forward Cucho Hernández are the creators of decibels of late. What doesn’t trigger “Ooos” and “ahhs” is possession and consistent passing and the Crew has the best player in the league for both in midfielder Darlington Nagbe.
Attention for Zelarayán and Hernández is warranted. After all, Zelarayán’s reentered the MVP race after being involved in 10 of the Black & Gold’s last 11 goals and Hernandez has scored five goals in five appearances since becoming Columbus’ most expensive signing. But what Nagbe’s done this year, and in all 12 of his professional seasons, might be the most impressive.
Wednesday night, Nagbe took part in the MLS All-Star Game as the Crew’s lone representative and had what’s best described as a Nagbe-esque performance. Playing the entire first half, Nagbe broke opposition lines with passing and held possession for the eventual 2-1 match-winning MLS All-Star side. He also was on the receiving end of a bad tackle in which he played through.
That’s what supporters and teams get when Nagbe wears the club’s colors, a player who keeps the ball, finds the forward pass or a teammate with a lane to find space themselves and is always be on the field. Head coach Caleb Porter, who has coached Nagbe in nine of his 12 professional seasons, knows him well.
“You’re not gonna meet a better pro,” said Porter on Wednesday. “The way he goes about his work every single day, taking care of himself. Whether it’s in the training room, whether it’s in the gym, whether it’s off the field, making sure he’s eating the right things, sleeping. He’s just a true pro in taking care of every detail that’s why he’s had the career he’s had.”
Over 12 seasons, Nagbe averages 90.03 percent passing. After initially joining the league as a more offensive-minded player, he never dipped under 85 percent passing in a season.
Nagbe has also played more than most. Only twice in his 12 seasons was he not in the top three for minutes played for outfield players on his team. Now in his 30s, Nagbe’s led the Black & Gold in minutes in 2021 and so far in 2022.
Those minutes have led to team awards. A lot of them. Nagbe’s part of three MLS Cup-winning sides wwoth the Portland Timbers, Atlanta United and Columbus. Playing with names like Portland’s Diego Valeri and Atlanta’s Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron in the process.
It’s easy to miss Nagbe’s impact when there are names that garner larger attention in a sport that thirsts for goals, even though he’s had some memorable strikes over the years himself. Nagbe’s won two MLS Goal of the Year awards on 35 career strikes.
Regardless, Nagbe’s always there, doing the work.
The lack of attention is appropriate for a person that doesn’t want it. There are players in the world who love the attention, which isn’t a bad thing, but Nagbe’s name isn’t on that list.
In the professional world, it’s called work/life balance, but when Nagbe isn’t in training or between the lines for 90 minutes, it’s hard to find him. Nagbe is a family man who, once the match is over, prefers to be with those closest to him.
When he speaks with the media, he’s focused and brief while keeping a centeredness that isn’t impacted by great or poor team results. Anyone trying to get a glimpse of his life outside of soccer, other than the occasional social media post about his wife and kids, what you see on the field is what you get.
Folks could misconstrue this detachment or a quiet presence as not caring, but those that see him, talk to him and work with him daily have a different perspective on it. It’s his strength.
“He’s one of the nicest people I’ve come across in the football world and I’ve been to a few places,” said center back and Australian National Team member Miloš Degenek. “He’s an unbelievable human. He’s an unbelievable friend. I think he’s a good father, husband. He’s a role model for the younger players to look up to, especially in his position.”
Porter has seen that strength for over half of Nagbe’s life. He doesn’t only know him from his professional play but first saw Nagbe when he was 15 years old, meeting the young midfielder on a youth field in Copley, Ohio. Nagbe played for Porter at the University of Akron, winning the 2010 national championship and Hermann Award for best player in college soccer.
After college, outside of the occasional MLS Team of the Week acknowledgment, Nagbe hasn’t gotten his due credit. He’s won a couple of MLS Fair Play awards for sportsmanship, just two All-Star appearances — including Wednesday night — and not featured on any MLS Best XIs, often overshadowed by midfielders who have more statistics.
Not coincidentally, however, wherever Nagbe has gone teams have won. Outside of those three MLS Cups, the midfielder has been part of teams that have won U.S. Open Cup titles, two Campeones Cups and a CONCACAF Gold Cup in a brief United States National Team stint. The rule of common denominators leads to Nagbe being important for team success. One day in the future, whatever team he’s on when he retires is going to have an impossibly large leadership gap to fill.
“He’s just a good person, he’s a good teammate, he’s very humble and he’s a good human being. I mean, that’s as simple as I can say it,” said Porter. “He’s a competitor but he does it in a quiet way. He’s a leader but he does it in a quiet way. He’s confident but he does it in a humble way. He’s just the epitome of a good pro and a good person.”
There are 11 matches left in this MLS season for Nagbe and the Crew. After an up and down start to the year, the Black & Gold are currently in an MLS Cup playoff spot and showed how dangerous the team can be on Saturday at their best. Now it’s up to Nagbe and Columbus to show that success can be repeated and turn into another MLS Cup run.
History shows that is easier to do with Nagbe in the team.