The college player of the year. A dynamic player who can be the face of the Portland Timbers. A versatile attacker who can make things happen from midfield.
The Portland Timbers management was excited, and, yes, a bit surprised Thursday, when Darlington Nagbe was available for them to pick with the No. 2 selection in the Major League Soccer SuperDraft.
“He does things that are years above where he should be (at age 20),” Timbers technical director and general manager Gavin Wilkinson said.
College soccer’s Hermann Trophy winner as the national player of the year in the fall of 2010, Nagbe had seven goals and 13 assists as a junior in helping Akron win its first national championship.
Considered a dynamic offensive talent with speed who plays both in midfield and at forward, Nagbe fell to Portland when Vancouver Whitecaps FC selected 17-year-old Omar Salgado of the U.S. under-20 national team with the first overall pick. The annual MLS entry draft is when teams select mostly from available American college players. It was held in Baltimore, Md.
Wilkinson called draft day a great success for his franchise, which begins its first MLS season in March. He said he is thrilled to land the player the Timbers had rated at the top of their list in Nagbe. And Wilkinson called the acquisition through trades of an extra foreign slot and more allocation money critical to the franchise’s plan.
In addition to the draft, reports on Thursday indicated that the Timbers will sign former MLS all-star striker Kenny Cooper, though Portland did not announce any additional player signings.
Timbers head coach John Spencer called Nagbe “a natural born soccer player” who brings unique versatility as a young player who can play any position in midfield and also move up front.
“It’s fantastic,” Spencer said about landing Nagbe. “The kid’s a fantastic soccer player.”
Nagbe is 5-foot-9, weight 165 pounds, and is 20 years old. He is one of 10 Generation Adidas players this year — meaning his salary will be paid by MLS and will not count against the Timbers salary cap.
Wilkinson said he was only slightly surprised that Vancouver went with Salgado, who is younger than Nagbe but has tremendous potential according to the Portland GM.
Nagbe was not in Baltimore at the time of the draft, but said during an interview with ESPN2 that the Whitecaps knew he preferred to play in the United States, and that he is thrilled to be coming to Portland. During a press conference later Thursday in Baltimore, Nagbe said he gladly would have played for Vancouver if selected No. 1.
“I grew up here in the United States,” said Nagbe, a native of Lakewood, Ohio. “It’s a beautiful country, but I would’ve gladly played for anyone who picked me.”
Nagbe said he is excited about coming to an expansion club because he will have a chance to compete for a starting spot. He said he expects the mental approach to being a professional to be as important an adjustment from the college game as the physical adjustment to MLS.
Nagbe said he did some internet research on Thursday after Portland picked him, and that he is excited about coming to a team with a enthusiastic fan base, including the Timbers Army.
Spencer said he hasn’t pegged a position for Nagbe, and that every player will be on equal footing to earn their position when training camp begins late this month.
Nagbe was the first of five Akron Zips selected in the top-eight selections.
“Darlington’s a special player,” Akron coach Caleb Porter said during an ESPN interview at the draft. “His talents aren’t always reflected in his (statistical) production, but it’s the subtle things that he does. It’s his touch, his ability to get out of pressure, the way he holds the ball.
“Technically, he’s one of the best college players I’ve ever seen.”
This is the third consecutive year that an Akron forward was among the top SuperDraft picks. In 2009, Seattle took Steve Zakuani with the No. 1 overall selection. In 2010, Teal Bunbury went to Sporting Kansas City with the No. 4 pick.
Zakuani tied for the Sounders team lead with 10 goals in his second season after posting four goals and four assists as a rookie. Bunbury had five goals and two assists as a rookie in 2010 for Kansas City.
Nagbe said he spoke with Bunbury, after Portland chose him.
“He’s been kind of a big brother to me,” Nagbe said of Bunbury. “He just told me that it’s a process, to have patience, and keep working hard.”
The Timbers’ second pick, No. 22 overall, was Chris Taylor, a 6-foot-1, 160-pound left back who played college soccer for Tulsa. Spencer said Taylor had a very strong showing at this week’s combine workouts for potential draftees.
Wilkinson said the Timbers see Taylor as a player with potential to develop into a fine left back, a position that is sometimes difficult to fill. It’s a position expected to be played this season by Rodney Wallace.
The Timbers were active traders. They sent their No. 20 pick and an undisclosed amount of allocation money to Seattle for and the No. 11 pick and a foreign player slot.
Wilkinson said they made the deal with a specific player in mind, but when that player was off the board, they traded it to Houston for allocation money that was more than Portland sent to Seattle.
Allocation money is essentially extra money from the league that is used to pay players. It’s purpose is to help expansion and struggling teams improve their rosters.
The Timbers did not announce any additional signings on Thursday, but Spencer said “special” announcements might come soon.
It is anticipated that striker Kenny Cooper, a MLS all-star in 2008 with FC Dallas, is coming to Portland. German second-division club 1860 Munich has reported that Cooper is leaving them to return to Major League Soccer with the Timbers.
Cooper, 26, started his professional career in the Manchester United reserves. In 2008, the 6-foot-3, 210-pound striker scored 18 goals in 30 matches for FC Dallas before moving to the German club.