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Great year for Timbers’ Nagbe

PORTLAND — Things couldn't be better for Darlington Nagbe.

The 25-year-old midfielder became an American citizen in September, he just returned from his first call-up with the U.S. national team, and his Portland Timbers are in the MLS Cup playoffs.

To top it off, Nagbe and his wife are expecting a son next month.

The enormity of it all dawned on him when he made his national team debut in a World Cup qualifying match against St. Vincent and the Grenadines in St. Louis two weeks ago. Nagbe wore a broad smile as he entered the game in the 64th minute.

"Just the whole process. Getting citizenship, and my family and everything like that," he said about the thoughts that raced through his mind in the moment. "Finally getting a chance to wear the colors. It was exciting."

Nagbe was born in Liberia and his father played for the national team. But civil war prompted his mother Somah to flee the country when Darlington was just a few months old. Joseph Nagbe, who was playing professionally in France at the time, found the family in a refugee camp in Sierra Leone.

The Nagbes traveled throughout Europe, following Joseph Nagbe's career. But when Darlington was 11, Somah moved the family to the United States, hoping for some stability and a solid education for her sons.

The family settled in Ohio, where Nagbe became a top youth player. When he was 15, he caught the eye of Akron coach Caleb Porter, who recruited him to play for the Zips.

In three seasons with Akron, Nagbe scored 19 goals and had 19 assists. He won the MAC Hermann Award for the nation's top college player as a junior.

"He was huge," Nagbe said of Porter. "Going to the University of Akron was a new experience for me. I didn't deal well with new environments, but he made it comfortable for me. He was a guy I could go to, and still go to, for advice about anything, whether it's family or soccer or anything."

Nagbe was the second overall pick in the MLS draft in 2011 by the expansion Portland Timbers. The next year he was reunited with Porter when he was made coach of the Timbers.

Portland went 15-11-8 this season, earning the Western Conference's third seed in the playoffs. The Timbers defeated Sporting KC in the knockout round, before beating the Vancouver Whitecaps 2-0 in the two legs of the conference semifinal.

Last Sunday the Timbers opened the conference finals with a 3-1 victory at home over FC Dallas. The second leg is set for Sunday in Frisco, Texas.

Portland has peaked at the right time, going 5-0-2 in the team's last seven games.

The playoff teams had a two-week break after the conference semifinals, which was when Nagbe learned he'd be making his debut with the U.S. national team.

Coach Jurgen Klinsmann left Clint Dempsey off the roster for the first two matches in the long qualifying path to the 2018 World Cup in Russia. He added Nagbe and fellow first-timer Matt Miazga of the Red Bulls on the 23-man roster.

"Our younger players have to come out of their shell," Klinsmann said. "We know Clint inside and out. He's always there. But we have to have a big picture toward Russia 2018. We need our young guys to make an impression."

Nagbe appeared in both games, a 6-1 victory over St. Vincent at the Grenadines, and a 0-0 draw with Trinidad and Tobago in Port-of-Spain.

"I hate to overhype him, but America doesn't really produce a lot of those shifty players that can get their foot on the ball and make people miss. It's not always spectacular, but just a little shift here or there to unbalance the defense," said U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard. "I like him a lot. I think he has a lot of potential and I think he's a good kid."

His inclusion on the team was made possible in September, when Nagbe officially became a U.S. citizen in a private ceremony with his wife and daughter after completing the naturalization test.

"I've known him for a long time, and I think it's a big moment for not only his soccer career, but for his life and his family," Porter said at the time. "So I'm really happy on all levels for him. It gives him the chance to go into the national team, which opens up new doors, new opportunities, new challenges for him and his soccer career."

Nagbe says he was thrilled with his first national team appearance and a chance to don the U.S. colors, but ultimately his new citizenship means so much more. It's the completion of one journey and the start of another.

"You wait for it, and you wait and wait. And then it finally happens and you're relieved," Nagbe said. "It goes back to our family history — my mom moved us here to go to school and get a good education and become U.S. citizens. So just realizing that dream for her kids to come true, it's exciting."

Forward/midfielder Darlington Nagbe was the second overall pick in the MLS draft in 2011 by the expansion Portland Timbers. AP PHOTO