When asked how it will be to face the Portland Timbers for the first time as an opponent, Darlington Nagbe can’t help but let out a laugh.
“It feels like just another game, but we’ll see when we get out there,” he says.
But it isn’t just another game. Nagbe spent seven years in Portland after being drafted by the Timbers out of Akron University in the MLS SuperDraft. So no doubt it will be a little strange to line up against them for the first time. But Darlington insists once he gets on the field it’s all business.
“I am looking forward to seeing some of those guys, but no conflicting emotions,” he told media this week. “You always want to win, no matter who you’re playing against.”
One of the primary players he’ll be facing for the first time is his former midfield partner, Diego Chara. One of the premier defensive midfielders in the league, Nagbe will be going toe to toe to with him in the center of the park. Darlington says he’s looking forward to facing the player he considers the most underrated player in MLS.
“His energy, ball-winning, he does a lot of dirty work that goes unnoticed, even in possession he does a good job for them. And he always makes you feel comfortable when you’re on his team. He might foul me a few times but we’ll just get back up and keep playing. It’s all love, that’s my guy.”
Joining them in midfield is a player everyone recognizes as one of the best in MLS, 2017 MVP Diego Valeri. Nagbe has had a up-close look at Valeri’s play ever since he joined MLS, and knows the threat he poses.
“Valeri is an excellent finisher, one of the best around the box at playing that final ball,” he said. “He has a great shot and great technique.”
That’s not to say Nagbe’s former team is exactly as he left it. With a new head coach at the helm, there are differences.
“They’re a little more compact defensively,” Nagbe says. “They have a new coach but a lot of the same players. Good pieces in the attack, Chara in the middle and a great back line.”
Portland has changed, but so has Darlington. Now in his eighth year in the league, Nagbe is still growing and adding to his game, thanks to the guidance of Tata Martino in Atlanta.
“I see the game differently being with Tata, the thing he stresses: pressing, possession, and being on the front foot. I think that’s made me a better player and opened my eyes more to the game a little bit.”
It’s clear Nagbe still holds the Timbers –– both the players and the fans –– in high regard. He says he’ll be meeting up with some old teammates when they get into town and says he probably won’t celebrate if he scores a goal against them. But it’s clear that Nagbe is energized coming off his break in the U.S. Open Cup, and isn’t going to let old friends get one over on him without a fight.
“Whenever you can get some rest after a tough stretch is great for the body, great for the mind. Hopefully we can come out there with some energy. They’re a good team. They have good players that are doing well right now. But we’re doing well too, so it will be a good game.”
Nagbe and his teammates will put friendships aside on Sunday as they host the Timbers for the first time at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, with their lead in the Supporters’ Shield standings on the line. Tickets for the match are still available, so make sure you’ve reserved yours here. If you can't make the match, don't worry, you can tune in on FOX or FOX Sports GO at 4:30 p.m. EST.