The 26-year-old US international visited Parkhead this week amid reports that Bhoys boss Brendan Rodgers is chasing his signature.
If reports are to be believed, Celtic could soon be signing one of the best and brightest talents MLS has to offer.
The likes of the Daily Mail claimed earlier this week that the Scottish champions are weighing up a January move for Portland Timbers midfielder Darlington Nagbe, before the rumour mill was sent into overdrive on Wednesday night when the player himself tweeted a video from the Parkhead stands ahead of watching his supposed suitors fall to a 2-0 Champions League defeat to Barcelona.
Despite having 10 USA caps under his belt, the 26-year-old playmaker remains a relatively unknown commodity outside of North America, but there are plenty of reasons why Brendan Rodgers should make a concerted effort to bring him to Glasgow permanently during the winter transfer window.
Widely considered one of the most technically gifted players in MLS, Nagbe was taken second overall by the Timbers in the 2011 SuperDraft following a three-year career at the University of Akron and has since made 197 league appearances for the Oregon-based club, recording 25 goals and 27 assists.
As an attacking midfielder who is neither a prolific scorer nor elite chance-creator, his lack of production has been criticised in some quarters over the past few seasons, but close observers of the Liberian-born American are fully aware that he offers far more than simply goals and assists.
Blessed with superb vision, control and plenty of pace, the Ohio native’s versatility allows him to easily shift around the final third, dictating tempo with his precise passing while showcasing some breath-taking moments of skill. His style of play means he has consistently been one of the most fouled players in MLS since his rookie campaign, and while his contributions do not show up on the scoresheet as much as some of the league’s other top playmakers, there is no doubting his ability to influence a game.
Back in April, Steven Gerrard even named the US international as one of the best players he had faced in MLS along with reigning MVP Sebastian Giovinco, having been in the LA Galaxy side when they suffered a 5-2 thrashing at the hands of the Timbers near the end of the 2015 regular season.
“I think he’s very energetic”, Gerrard said of Nagbe in a live Facebook Q&A. “[He] gets across the pitch and around the pitch very well. His passing’s quite safe and good and he managed to get a goal against us last year. He’s probably put in the best individual performance against us.”
That victory over the Galaxy happened to coincide with arguably Nagbe’s best run of form to date. After previously spending most of his time out wide, the former Akron standout was moved into a central role as the Timbers chased a playoff spot and immediately came into his own, scoring three goals in as many games to help Caleb Porter’s men secure the third seed in the Western Conference.
With the chance to get more touches on the ball, his eye-catching performances not only continued into the postseason but also earned him his first two US caps that November, before the skilful attacker wrapped up his 2015 campaign the following month by inspiring Portland to their first-ever MLS Cup title with a 2-1 win over Columbus Crew SC. To everyone watching his displays, it seemed like this was the coming out party for America’s next big star.
However, while Nagbe has since made eight more international appearances, scoring the only goal in a friendly with Ecuador in May before featuring three times off the bench during the team’s run to the Copa America semi-finals, his club form has failed to hit the same heights as late-2015. With injuries constantly forcing the Timbers to change their line-up, the dynamic midfielder struggled to find his rhythm as this past season progressed, netting once in 27 games while adding five assists as his side ultimately slumped to a disappointing seventh-place finish in the West. He still managed to produce some trademark flashes of brilliance here and there, but given the gaudy expectations for him at the start of the year, even his biggest supporters were forced to accept that he had stagnated.
At this point, the growing sentiment within MLS circles is that the one-time All-Star needs to break out of his comfort zone and challenge himself with a move abroad, and Celtic would certainly appear to be an appealing destination given their reputation and regular appearances in the Champions League.
Having only just signed a new deal until December 2019 earlier this year, the Hoops’ reported £1.5 million valuation of the Timbers ace is likely too low to lure him away from Providence Park, but it probably would not take a lot more to get negotiations going if the player himself is keen to move on. £2 million, for example, can go a long way in MLS thanks to the salary cap restrictions, and the fact that Portland were willing to move left-back Jorge Villafana to Santos Laguna last December despite his superb 2015 season suggests that Nagbe could also be had for the right price.
In many ways, he could prove to be the same kind of signing for the Scottish giants as Adam Lallana was for Rodgers’ Liverpool side – an aesthetically-pleasing and versatile midfielder who lacks end product but adds plenty of value elsewhere, elevating the play of those around him with his work in transition.
His nine-goal 2013 campaign also shows that he does have the ability to find the back of the net on a more regular basis, and one need only watch the strike that earned him the 2011 MLS Goal of the Year award to see how he can do so in spectacular, Lubomir Moravcik-esque fashion.
Ultimately, Nagbe isn’t a potential signing who is going to make Celtic a European powerhouse overnight, but there’s no reason he shouldn’t thrive in the Scottish Premiership with his quick feet, crisp passing and exceptional athleticism.
A lot could change between now and January, but if Rodgers is after a savvy playmaker on the cusp of his prime at a bargain price, he should waste no time in trying to work out a deal with the Timbers.