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The tortured demise of the Darlington Nagbe-Celtic transfer

Written by Will Parchman

nagbe

Darlington Nagbe will not be going to Celtic. At least not yet, and perhaps not ever.

Whoever did the rejecting is perhaps up to your specific Atlantic bias. Celtic, which had invited the enigmatic Timbers attacker to watch a Champions League match against Barcelona earlier this year, claims it’s the one doing the walking away. The Timbers side of the equation alleges quite differently.

Something tells me one of those multiple reasons was not Nagbe’s heart’s desire.

Transfers are tricky business anyway. It is, at its core, the process of multiple planetary bodies aligning. But it is doubly difficult in MLS. The league ultimately holds the contracts of each of the players, not the club, which means teams have an extra gatekeeper to consider when selling on players. If the league office deems a player unmovable, then the discussions between league HQ and club HQ will overheat. Inevitable.

But buying and selling is still player-driven at its molten core, even in these days of the frankly uncomfortable monetary power wielded by the world’s elite owners. The owner is dependent on the player for everything, and if he denies the player his will, then he denies himself his team.

Obafemi Martins’ last days in Seattle were an instructive lesson in this sort of thing. Martins had been perhaps the best DP in the league for a white-hot two years, but he was a nomad at heart. In his home he has the jerseys of each of his (many) clubs embroidered into stool chairs. His departure was always an inevitability, and at the dawn of the 2016 season China knocked. Martins opened the door, and suddenly the Sounders had a decision to make.

Hard as it was to swallow, there remained a vocal rebellion of Sounders fans openly deriding Garth Lagerwey and the Sounders front office for allowing Martins to leave. And they (read: MLS) had the power to reject the terms of the transfer if they deemed it unfit. The Sounders did not because to deny Martins the move, aside from whatever monetary gains the club ultimately accepted, would be to deny themselves of the Martins they knew. Keeping Martins in Seattle against his will would have riven the locker room into factions, created a disgruntled and checked-out star and benefited neither party. Better to take the money, let Martins leave at his leisure and use the money more wisely. It took five months, but Martins turned into Lodeiro and Lodeiro turned into an MLS Cup trophy.

The money is easy to understand, the personality pages in the story less so.

Twellman reported the Timbers denied Celtic for “multiple reasons,” and we can only guess at what they were in sum. One assumes Nagbe and Timbers coach Caleb Porter sat around a somewhat uncomfortable boardroom table and let the opinions fly like freshly nocked arrows. And one assumes that the club’s rejection of the transfer was a tacit admission that they cleared it with Nagbe first.

That does not necessarily mean that Nagbe did not want Celtic. Because all indications certainly pointed in that direction.

Nagbe’s career has been a confusing series of switchback turns up an even more confusing mountain glinting with the bedrock of stuttering up-and-down form, incomplete USMNT minutes and a seeming willingness to stay home where so many would see him leave. Nagbe has always been different in this way, a night in front of a comfortable crackling fire in lieu of a trek outside into the the storm for a larger dinner.

But something about this seemed different. Flares popped in the distance, trailing the notion that this might be Nagbe’s opportunity at a brief experience abroad before returning home to finish his career time time hence. Celtic, in truth, offered the perfect comfortable-yet-stretching environment. The furnace was hot enough to dip him into the Champions League but not so hot to expect much of anything in it. He would be given a blank slate in a Scottish league as good if not worse on the whole than what he found in MLS, and on a team that would annihilate everything in its path whether he was on form or not. And he would be a heater away from Premier League attention, should that option tickle his ambition. If not? Celtic is a destination in and of itself.

But the Timbers pulled the release valve and killed the deal. For reasons.

The one thing that is clear, whatever the motivation, is that Nagbe would’ve moved had the front offices agreed to terms. He would be in hoops and in the UK and the Timbers would be moving on with their next big hit from Saprissa or wherever else. That Nagbe is not indicates either the Timbers didn’t like the terms and refused outright, Nagbe agreed after considering that staying in Portland was not a bad way to go (whatever his deeper ambition), or Celtic received a Timbers counter-offer it found unacceptable.

The question now becomes one of motivation. Nagbe has an abiding relationship with Porter stretching back to Akron, and Nagbe is not a vagabond like Martins. He is a homebody at his core, and even if he’s disappointed at the dead deal one assumes he’ll find a way to accept it. But if Nagbe finds it difficult to fully stow away his disappointment, 2017 should be an intriguing year.

There is still, of course, hope for Nagbe yet. Until the transfer maw snaps shut nothing is truly dead, not even this Celtic deal. And if Nagbe wants to leave badly enough, the Timbers are only doing themselves a disservice by holding him back. While it looks bleak, Nagbe could still end up in Glasgow.

Nagbe remains perhaps the most blatantly talented player in MLS who accesses his full complement of powers all at the same time only sparingly. Nagbe could be an utter game-changer, but motivation matters too. Nagbe is a pro, and pros play through circumstance. But one wonders what will happen next.

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