Portland Timbers manager Caleb Porter has coached Darlington Nagbe since the two were at the University of Akron, and after the player's first two U.S. men's national team caps, Porter has nothing but praise for Nagbe's evolution and believes he can be a centerpiece for the U.S. in the future.
Much has been made over Nagbe and Portland's transformation since Porter shifted Nagbe into a central midfield role, and Porter spoke to SI's Grant Wahl on the Planet Fútbol Podcast Thursday ahead of the Portland Timbers' MLS Western Conference final first leg against FC Dallas, detailing the 25-year-old Nagbe's growth.
"He's become, now, a complete player," Porter said. "He's been an interesting player for everybody to figure out, kind of an enigma, I've heard that word. And he's been an enigma for me as well, in figuring out how to motivate him, figuring out what his best position is, and I know him better than anybody. He's kind of a hybrid player in that he doesn't really fit a role, or he hadn't, but I think we might have really found his best spot and that's as a box-to-box midfielder because he wants the ball. His No. 1 priority is keeping the ball. I've tried to break that from him, because he just never wants to give the ball away, almost to a fault. ... It's like a prized possession for him.
"Instead of trying to break that, we've tried to embrace it now and just say, 'If you want to keep the ball, then just abuse your opponent with possession.' ... It's been amazing to see his evolution."
Born in Liberia, Nagbe obtained his U.S. citizenship in September and was called into U.S. camp for the first time for the opening World Cup qualifiers of the 2018 cycle. When asked if Nagbe, who appeared as a substitute against both St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Trinidad and Tobago, is the type of player Is he the type of player the U.S. can build around, Porter did not hesitate.
"For sure," Porter said. "I think he's different. He's a different player than what we have currently in the national team. He's a guy that, my big question was with Jurgen [Klinsmann] was how is he going to use him? I didn't have the answer, because it took me time to figure out how to use him as well, and it depends on the system really, and yet if you have a really good player, and this is what I came to is, forget what he's not doing. Figure out a way to make him work.
"When you have a really good player like Darlington, you've got to figure out how to make it work so that he can help your team be very successful. He's very unique and different. You saw in the two games he played, he understands the flow of a game. He wasn't going to come in and be rattled. Technically there's composure immediately on the ball.
"He played it right. He kept the ball, he's trying to earn his stripes in that team, and you saw eventually everyone just started passing to him all the time, and it's because they know he's not going to lose it. They start to trust his game. I'm excited to see the next camp and see what steps he makes forward."
Listen to Porter's entire interview below: