THE TIMBERS just blew a two-goal lead, and the Portland locker room is a morgue on Saturday, July 30.
Reporters ask questions in hushed tones. Players walk in from the showers with blank stares. One describes the team's mood to a scrum of media: "Guys are sick to their stomachs."
The Timbers needed this one. Playoff hopes are fading, and time for a turnaround is ticking away.
Forward Eddie Johnson scored his first Major League Soccer goal on this night, but not even he can smile about it. He says this disappointing tie at home feels more like a loss, and that the "shine" of his first goal was dimmed by the final result.
No smiles here, until Johnson's asked about the emerging play of teammate and fellow rookie Darlington Nagbe.
The striker's face cracks to reveal the Portland locker room's first grin of the night.
"Obviously, that goal he scored," Johnson says while remembering his fellow rookie's first score, an instant YouTube sensation, "is going to be remembered for a long time."
Yes, if Portland's inaugural season does end up a lost cause, there'll still be reason to beam in Timberland. Timbers Army may not be chanting, "Wait 'til next year!" anytime soon (though it has a certain ring to it), but even the most pessimistic PTFC fans know "looking to the future" translates to "looking to Darlington Nagbe."
And there's no doubt the 21-year-old and Portland's first-ever MLS SuperDraft selection is on the cusp of a breakout.
His first professional goal was one for the ages, and it's little wonder why it brought the only smile of the night to Johnson's face: During Portland's 2-1 loss to Kansas City on July 2, Nagbe scored a soccer goal in such a manner that words upon newsprint can't quite deliver it justice: He took a ball punched out of danger by the KC keeper, calmly juggled it twice in the air and fired a seemingly laser-guided shot across the penalty area and into the far top corner of the goal—all without letting the ball touch the ground.
Touch. Pop. Strike.
YouTube. SportsCenter. Worldwide fame.
"It's died down a little bit," says Nagbe, whose video has received more than 1.5 million hits and was ESPN's "best of the best" top play for four days running. He admits watching the highlight "a few times" at home and that of all the congratulatory calls he got, the one from his mom stands out. "She was crying when she saw it on SportsCenter. That was the best one."
Teammates admittedly gave Nagbe grief for gaining instant attention from across the soccer-loving planet on his introduction to professional goal scoring.
Timbers captain Jack Jewsbury—who first heard about Nagbe last season, when fellow University of Akron alum and Jewsbury's then-KC teammate Teal Burnbury sung Nagbe's praises across the Sporting locker room—takes a playful, devilish tone: "We wanted to make sure [Nagbe's] head doesn't get too big," Jewsbury says. "Like, hey, quit going home and watching SportsCenter."
He did, and since then, Nagbe's been showing increasingly consistent flashes of brilliant play, earning his first MLS Team of the Week honors last month when he took a season-high four shots and made a highlight-reel save on the goal line.
"Coach wants me to be meaner, a little more ruthless," says Nagbe, the Liberian-born son of soccer star Joe Nagbe who grew up in Lakewood, Ohio, and now resides in the Pearl. "He tells me I have all the ability in the world and I'm the only one holding myself back."
But Nagbe's smooth play on the field matches his demeanor off it. Just last week, he coolly planned a surprise proposal to girlfriend Felicia Houtz, choosing Council Crest Park to cement a relationship that began when Nagbe was a two-time All-American and national champion at Akron.
Quiet, unassuming and hardly the first player the media flocks to for a quote, Nagbe says his confidence is growing as he soaks in the lessons of his first MLS season ("You can't take minutes off because someone else is going to be running," he says). He particularly admires the work ethic of keeper Troy Perkins ("His intensity is the same, whether it's a game or a practice," Nagbe says) and insists that even though he's the anointed future of the franchise, he's just like any other player competing for playing time.
"I've got to perform," Nagbe says, his eyes widening as he talks about more goals and assists. "I feel like I'm doing better, but I want to do more."
Should Portland struggle down the stretch, Timbers fans may be searching for reasons to smile.
Wait 'til next year?
More like, "Just wait for Darlington."