Like his father, 27-year-old Darlington is a midfielder but, unlike his Nagbe Sr, he has started his international career at an age where many already have dozens of caps to their name. Leaving Liberia with his mother and siblings as a youngster, following his father as he passed through clubs in France, Switzerland, Greece, Abu Dhabi and Indonesia. It was only when Darlington was 11 that the family settled in the United States.
“Growing up with a father who was a professional player meant that I always wanted to play football myself,” the Portland Timbers man explained, “and when I was around 18, I realised that I could make it. Although I went to university, it was my dream to follow in my father’s footsteps.”
Whilst studying at Akron University, Darlington undertook his first steps towards a professional career, signing for the Cleveland Internationals, who were earning their keep in the USL Premier Development League. Come 2011, he was picked by the Timbers in the first round of the draft and has been with the MLS club ever-since.
It was another four years until he obtained his US citizenship and less than a week later was picked by USA’s then coach Jurgen Klinsmann for two 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying matches against St. Vincent and the Grenadines. “It was huge playing the first game,” Darlington recalled. “I remember the match; we already had a good lead, so it was a good game to come into. I remember smiling coming onto the field, thinking about everything the US had given me and now having the opportunity to represent them.”
A golden Gold Cup
Since then, just as his career with the Portland Timbers has taken off – winning MLS Cup in 2015 and making the MLS All Star team a year later, he has gone from pride at wearing the shirt to joy at triumphing in it. Having been drafted into USA’s Gold Cup squad for the knock-out stages of the competition last month, he played in all three games and helped the side win their sixth title thanks to a 2-1 final victory against Jamaica.
“It was amazing winning the Gold Cup. That was my first medal with the international side and it was just so great being a part of the group. We lost in the semi-finals against Jamaica in 2015. That was before I joined the team, so it was fantastic to beat them this time around and hopefully we can keep that momentum going into the next World Cup qualifiers.”
For Darlington, who is married and has two children, making it to Russia next year would be of special significance. “My father captained the Lone Stars, when they came so close to qualifying for the 2002 World Cup. I remember that they would have qualified if they had beaten Ghana at home, but they lost,” Darlington reminisced, having been just ten years old at the time. “I was at those matches. I was very young, so I can’t remember much, but I do know they came so close.
“I know my father will now be hoping that I can make it to the World Cup finals.”
With four games to go, USA lie third in the final qualifying group and need to hold firm to clinch the last automatic qualifying spot. “The thing about the CONCACAF group is that the games are really difficult, whoever the opponent. The conditions away from home are tough.”
A 1-1 draw in Mexico back in June has played the Stars and Stripes back into contention after a shaky start. “That was a game we could not afford to lose,” Darlington admitted. “We executed our game plan tremendously well. We had the lead and I thought we might get away with a win, but in the end we were happy to get away with a point. We are in good shape now and can take care of business in the remainder of the games.”
Qualifying for the World Cup would be yet another milestone in Darlington’s career. “It has all been very much like a dream, even though I’m very realistic and I never expect all these things to happen until they finally happen. When they do, I appreciate them and I’m thankful for them. I look back at the journey I undertook to get where I am now and even though it’s been a short time, it’s been a great time and I am very grateful for everything.”