Many players overcome adversity or a tough upbringing to star on the international stage. Other overcome something much greater. Darlington Nagbe is one whose path to success began in the middle of war. Nagbe was born in Liberia in 1990, right around the start of the First Liberian Civil War. the First Liberian Civil War began in 1989 and lasted 8 years, killing 250,000 people. His dad, Joe Nagbe, was a professional soccer player at the time who played in France, but when he was born, the rest of Nagbe’s family decided initially to remain in Liberia.
”It was a really difficult time, especially for my mom,” Nagbe said in a 2015 interview with the New York Times. “My mom hadn’t followed [his dad] yet, and then the war broke out. At nights, she was hearing gunshots, and there was no electricity. My older brother was three, and she was pregnant with me. She had to find someone to deliver me and was getting help from rebels. They managed a way to stay together, stay alive, and flee the country.”
When he was 5 months old, his family fled Liberia to join the senior Nagbe in Europe. Joe Nagbe’s career took them to France, Greece, and Switzerland before the family moved to the United States, settling in the Cleveland area. His family, Nagbe mentioned to the New York Times, wanted him to get an education and live out their lives in the United States.
Nagbe came up in the Ohio soccer scene, and also participated U.S. Soccer’s Development Academy. Not yet a U.S. citizen, he couldn’t play for the U.S. national youth teams and he didn’t want to represent the country of his birth that he was too young to remember. He went on to star at the University of Akron Zips, where he was known as a playmaker. He scored 19 goals and added 19 assists during his time there and helped the Akron Zips to the 2010 national championship. For his efforts during that season, he was honored with the Hermann Award as college soccer’s player of the year.
Darlington Nagbe then decided to turn pro and signed with Major League Soccer. He was the 2nd overall pick in the 2011 MLS Superdraft, with the Portland Timbers selecting him as their first-ever pick in their first season in the league. His introduction to the league was a sensational one. His first goal for the Timbers came on July 2, 2011, a incredible juggle-volley strike that eventually was named MLS’s goal of the year.
Nagbe continued to thrive in Portland, particularly after his college coach, Caleb Porter, became coach of the Timbers in 2013. In 2012, Nagbe received his U.S. green card, which put him on a track to become a citizen. It was then that he started to catch the eye of the USMNT. In 2015, he became a U.S. citizen and immediately became eligible for selection for the national team. He made his debut for the USMNT in a World Cup qualifier against St. Vincent and the Grenadines in November 2015. He also featured 4 days later against Trinidad and Tobago.
His creativity in the midfield was something the USMNT needed. His dynamic play created opportunities for others. It wasn’t long until he was able to create for himself as well. In May 2016, he scored his lone goal for the USMNT in a friendly against Ecuador.
Just a few days later, he provided an assist in a friendly against Bolivia, and that was enough for then-coach Jurgen Klinsmann to name him to the 2016 Copa América Centenario roster.
So far in his young career, Darlington Nagbe has had many standout performances and earned several accolades. He won MLS Cups with Portland in 2015 and with Atlanta United in 2018. With Atlanta, he also won a Campeones Cup and the U.S. Open Cup in 2019. He was a member of the USMNT squad that placed 4th in the 2016 Copa América Centenario, and he also was a part of the squad that won the 2017 Gold Cup. He’s won 2 MLS Fair Play Awards, was named to the 2016 MLS All-Star roster, and was on the Best XI at the 2017 Gold Cup. Not bad for a kid from Monrovia.
While Liberia was where he was born, Nagbe considers the United States his home. While he is currently taking a self-imposed break from the national team, many fans hope he will return at some point, as his creative play in the middle is something that cannot be duplicated. He found his liberation in the United States, however. He found his home. That’s bigger than any game or any team.
For more Black History Month stories, check out our Black History Month hub. We will be bringing a story each day this month to highlight some of the biggest moments in black American and world soccer history.