Selfless Darlington Nagbe hopes he and U.S. can find 'another level'

DALLAS -- Whenever Darlington Nagbe gets on the ball, he has an internal checklist that he goes through. His first instinct is to locate his striker and attacking midfielder, to see if they're open.

"I make sure I can get them going, because if they get going, it just opens up space for the rest of the team," the U.S. international said in an exclusive interview with ESPN FC.

If that's not on, the midfielder looks to keep possession, to keep the ball moving and perhaps slide a pass out wide. And then?

"The last resort is me running with the ball," he said.

It is that approach that drives even some of Nagbe's biggest fans to distraction and elicits a criticism that he has no doubt heard hundreds, if not thousands, of times: Be greedy.

It's not that running with the ball should always be a higher priority, but it needs to be utilized more often. And in the aftermath of Wednesday's 2-0 win over El Salvador in the quarterfinals of the Gold Cup, the familiar critique was one that U.S manager Bruce Arena felt compelled to deliver again.

"I'd like [Nagbe] to be a little more selfish at times," Arena said.

To be clear, Arena listed plenty of positives, calling Nagbe a "very good player, very much a team player." And Nagbe's technical prowess, be it with his passing or dribbling, has never been in doubt. Yet Nagbe's game also defies ready-fit labels such as a No. 8 or a No. 10. He's more of a provider, a linker, at times to a fault.

On Wednesday, that unselfishness manifested itself when he had multiple opportunities to drive at the defense, only to settle for a pass a little bit too easily and too early.

"Once [Nagbe] got at them a little bit more, he got dangerous and helped our team in the attack," Arena said that night.

When asked about the mantra that has been attached to his career, Nagbe gives a calm, patient smile and says, "They're right," referring to not only Arena but also Nagbe's manager at club level, the Portland Timbers' Caleb Porter.

The most hair-pulling aspect of Nagbe's approach is that he's quite good at running with the ball. In fact, when combined with the other strengths of his game, it's what allows him to be at his best.

So why doesn't he do it more often? Ask any player what it is about the game that gets them pumped up, and the first two responses are usually winning and scoring a goal. But there are little micro-facets that form the core of their passion, that are the means to the end. For some, it's making a killer pass. For others, it's winning the ball from the opposition. The building blocks of Nagbe's passion for the game fit with a personality that is cool and composed.

"I'd say just getting touches on the ball, getting rhythm, make sure my guys are getting involved, we're all getting touches, we're all clean and sharp in possession as well, and creating chances and playing good soccer," he said. "I just like bringing guys into the game, making sure my teammates get going, making sure they're happy, knowing what they love to do. Me, I like providing that, so I'm happy doing that."

It's easy to conclude that perhaps this is just who Nagbe is, and trying to change him, at age 27, is a futile enterprise. But there have been moments -- like during last June's 2-0 World Cup qualifying win over Trinidad & Tobago -- when Nagbe moves beyond his link-man comfort zone, drives at the defense and forces defenders into choosing between two bad options. And so the excitement builds again that the midfielder can grow in to a bigger, more influential attacking presence.

If Nagbe can unleash his ego in Saturday's Gold Cup semifinal against Costa Rica, the odds of a U.S. victory will certainly go up. It's still unclear whether he'll be positioned centrally with Michael Bradley or moved outside, allowing Kellyn Acosta to move back into the lineup.

Either way, Nagbe will be a critical piece in unlocking Costa Rica's 5-3-2 formation, one that has conceded just once in the entire tournament.

"It's tough because if we try to go on the wings, they have numbers there," he said of the Ticos. "We can try to go through the middle and try to sustain possession through the middle, but if we can't break them down through middle, try to get a quick switch. If we do get it wide, you need to try and take advantage of that and go at them directly because they do get numbers back quickly."

United States has scored a tournament-high eight goals so far, but there is a sense, one shared by Nagbe, that the best is yet to come. "We know there's another level within us," he said.

The U.S. is hoping there's another one inside Nagbe as well.