As we get into the USL season, we at CincinnatiSoccerTalk.com thought it would be great to catch up with local professional soccer players plying their trade in North America. Some of the players you may have heard of before while others you will be introduced to for the first time. Our goal is to update our readers on their career, gather their thoughts on the growth of professional soccer in the Queen City, and other stories about what it’s like to be a professional in “the beautiful game”.
Going into the match against Toronto FC II this Sunday we wanted to shed the spotlight on Toronto FC/ TFC II Center Back Nick Hagglund. From the north-side of Cincinnati, Nick honed his skills at Lakota West and Cincinnati United Premier before transitioning to Xavier University. During his 4 years as a Musketeer, Nick earned several key honors such as the BIG EAST Conference Defensive Player of the Year and was an All-American in 2013.
A hot prospect coming out of Xavier, Nick began his career as the 10th pick in 2014 MLS Superdraft, selected by Toronto FC. Nick was thrust into a starting role early on after an injury to starting CB and TFC captain Steven Caldwell. He impressed quickly recording 23 starts in 25 games. Going into 2015 expectations were high as he was slotted to be the starting CB but his season was cut short on July 16th when he was forced to have surgery in order to get his appendix removed.
The road back to form in 2016 started with several appearances on Toronto coach Greg Vanney’s bench. Hagglund was not called upon in those games, yet was needing some minutes to regain form. The advent of MLS2 clubs was beneficial as Nick was loaned to TFC II for last week’s game against the Pittsburgh Riverhounds. He played the entire match and recorded his first goal in a year. I asked Nick what it was like to get loaned out in addition to seeing some real minutes since last summer “I haven’t played a full game since my appendix last year so it was nice to get 90 minutes. It’s amazing. Sometimes when you are off the field for a while it’s kind of like do I remember how to do this? Practice is practice but a game situation is the real deal so it was really nice to get out there and enjoy playing soccer and I think that was the biggest takeaway, just enjoying it.”
With Cincinnati near and dear to Nick’s heart, I wanted to get his thoughts on FC Cincinnati making international headline’s the past two weeks and what it was like to see professional soccer grow in his home town. “People say Toronto is amazing and Toronto is great but Cincinnati has this special quality about it that people don’t know about. For soccer to be so big and to see how the city has just gone open arms to the sport has been really exciting. I follow everything on Twitter and Instagram and love seeing what is going on.” As far as his thoughts on last week’s attendance of 20,497 “Did I expect it? No. But I knew that if there was a city that would catch on it would be Cincinnati. The soccer community is so strong in Cincinnati. Even through high school and college soccer especially Xavier and UC have had good runs, the city is ready for it and as a sport it brings people together.
Having grown up in Cincinnati, Hagglund has experience with several members of FC Cincinnati. “I know Luke (Spencer), Dallas (Jaye) and Jamie Starr from my time at Xavier. I know Austin Berry from CUP (Cincinnati United) and played with Wieda (Andrew Wiedeman) in Toronto.” Nick mentioned how cool it was to see guys he had played with suiting up for the Orange and Blue. I asked him what we could learn about his old teammates. “The staff at FC Cincinnati has done a great job bringing in guys that are going to care. That’s one thing when I played with Luke & Wieda, these are guys that care about winning and want the winning culture to be present. They are competitors and they are winners.”
Asked if he had a stories about time off the field, Nick mentioned “My rookie year in Toronto I spent a lot of time with Wieda. After practice a couple times a week I’d head over to his house after training and we spent a lot of time playing Catan. It’s a board game. We’d play Settlers of Catan and whoever won would be called the Lord the next day at practice. So I’d have to call him Lord Wieda. He’s a fantastic guy and we’d have Chipotle Tuesday’s where every Tuesday we’d go to Chipotle.” Even though Nick didn’t say who had the upper hand on the series, he did say “Lord Wieda” was frequently in his vocabulary.
Last year TFC II ended up in 11th of 12 in the USL Eastern Conference but have gotten off to a hot start taking 5 pts. in their first 3 matches. Asked if there was a “secret sauce” that led to the dramatic improvement, Nick wasn’t hesitant to credit the Toronto organization. “For me I got to play with them a little bit last year but I know this past offseason they trained every day and from the beginning to the end of that they came in working hard every day. I think their soccer IQ grew a lot and I think it had to do a lot with the coaching staff and their philosophy of it’s ok to make mistakes be we want to play, we want to play! Instead of protecting the lead or playing a style of soccer that a little bit safer, we are going to teach you to play the right way. The USL team is a league for development and when you look over the past year these guys have learned a ton. The coaches give them the leash to reach their potential and their academy coaches are really good.
Nick also credits a strong academy system to their improvement. “Last week there was a 17 year old playing alongside 24 year old’s. I think that says something about the maturity of the club and a maturity of the players they bring in.” He also mentioned TFC brings in USL players to train with the senior side in small side or larger side scrimmages. Hagglund noted this is useful for getting players acclimated to the squad and gives them the confidence to succeed. It has also been useful in case of injuries to train with a full squad.
On Toronto’s senior side they feature a 3-headed monster with USMNT Captain Michael Bradley, USMNT forward Jozy Altidore, and Italian international Sebastian Giovinco. I asked Nick what it was like to face the quality of these players day in and day out as a defender in practice. Did he pick up tips to improve his game? “These guys are true professionals. To play with Mike is something special because this guy has a laser focus and determination on what he wants and see’s for the club. Just to have learned from these guys is incredible but a lot of times we get to play against them and that makes you better. You get to see what the best in the world are doing and how you measure up. It makes you a better player obviously.
It wouldn’t have been a good interview if I didn’t ask him about how he liked poutine in Canada? “Haha, I have had the poutine up here but if you eat too much of it you will have a heart attack. It’s fries with cheese curds and gravy. It’s not as good as cheese fries at Skyline or Gold Star but it’s decent. You have to splurge on it where you can only eat it once a month.” When I mentioned that we told Andrew Wiedeman to try Goetta on last week’s pod, Nick encouraged it. “You just have to feed it to him. Just blindfold him and he’ll do anything!”
Overall you could really sense an excitement in Nick’s voice getting to play again but also in the organization as a whole. He’s confident that both TFC teams are going to have great seasons and thinks we’ll see that in the TFC II game this weekend. You could tell he’s very optimistic about FC Cincinnati and when asked about the opportunity to one day play a MLS match in Cincinnati “That would be amazing!”
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