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Soccer Star Returns to Familiar Soil
Nick Hagglund wasn’t a high school All-American. He wasn’t recruited by big-name programs, and even he will admit he was a little unsure of himself going into his college soccer career. Not what one might expect to learn of an eventual top-10 draft pick.
Now five years after signing to play soccer for Xavier University—a program that won only two games during his senior year at Lakota West High School—Hagglund has a dramatically different value within the sport.
A four-year Division I starter and two-time conference player of the year, Hagglund became Toronto FC’s prize in the Major League Soccer (MLS) Super Draft this past January. Toronto traded up five spots to select the 2013 Big East Defensive Player of the Year with the 10th pick overall, and he’s been active on the team’s roster through its first three games this season. With three of the Toronto Reds defenders out or questionable, the 21-year-old West Chester native is hoping to make his professional debut this weekend as Toronto travels to play the Columbus Crew at 6 p.m. on Saturday.
“He’s a local kid down the road that really just worked hard and got better,” says Xavier University coach Andy Fleming, whose first season was Hagglund’s freshman year. “There weren’t a lot of bells and whistles coming in, and now he’s playing professional soccer. The biggest part of that story is how hard he worked and how he got better during his four years.”
Hagglund says he originally chose Xavier with hopes he could make a difference there. The Musketeers had won just five games combined in 2008 and 2009 and had never made an NCAA tournament.
He was a second team All-State selection as a midfielder for Lakota West and had all the attributes Fleming wanted in a player—good student, good values, and strong work ethic. At 6-foot-1, 187 pounds, Hagglund was a physical specimen with athleticism that Fleming thought more than made up for his lack of technical skills and soccer knowledge, things he hoped Hagglund could learn and develop. Though a little timid at first, Hagglund ended up starting all but one game in his four years as a Muskie.
“Honestly, I didn’t know what was going to happen in college,” says Hagglund. “I wanted to contribute to the team, so I went to Xavier, which was kind of like a broken program and hadn’t won many games. I thought I could make a difference, and I was able to do that. But to start every game, I would have never imagined that.”
Injuries to other players in the lineup forced Hagglund into various roles up front and in the midfield as a freshman, but when Xavier lost its center back at the end of the regular season, Fleming discovered Hagglund’s true value—a position he had never played.
The Musketeers posted three straight shutouts in the Atlantic 10 conference tournament to win their first championship and the first of three straight NCAA tournament berths. Fleming was sold.
“After that, it was kind of our ‘Aha!’ moment where we thought this kid could be pretty special and play professional soccer, because he has a high ceiling,” says Fleming.
Hagglund went on to earn three first team all-conference selections, two conference Defensive Player of the Year honors (with the Atlantic 10 in 2012 and Big East in 2013) and a second team All-America honor. During his tenure on the back line, Xavier posted 31 shutouts.
Lakota West coach Rick Cooper knew Hagglund would be successful wherever he went to college simply because, “when he put his mind to something, he accomplished it.”
Xavier ended up getting more than it bargained for with Hagglund, who originally was recruited by the staff preceding Fleming.
“They saw how physically dominant he was, mainly in the air,” says Cooper. “He is by far one of the best players Cincinnati has produced in terms of winning balls in the air. I don’t think anyone realized he would become the player he became, but that’s what they were hoping on, and they were right.”
Fleming notes that Hagglund’s soccer IQ “improved tremendously,” as did his ability to read the game and overall comfort with the ball.
“He came in as an athlete, someone who is fast and strong, who just happened to play soccer, and he graduated as a soccer player who happened to be athletic,” says Fleming.
But while Fleming and Cooper both said they recognized how much Hagglund’s game evolved with time, neither one expected him to go as high as he did in the draft. In fact, neither did Hagglund himself. Most mock draft boards projected him going in the second round, maybe late first round (out of 19 MLS teams), but the Reds didn’t want to risk another team getting him.
“We had Nick up there as a player who even if we had the first pick of the first round, that we would be drafting him,” TFC general manager Tim Bezbatchenk told reporters after the draft. “He was a player that just stood out as a consistent defender in which the sky is the ceiling on him."
Hagglund had spoken with officials from Toronto, so he knew they were at least somewhat interested, but he still didn’t know what to expect.
“I was definitely nervous,” says Hagglund, thinking back. “I had heard stories about players getting picked up and then dropped pretty quickly, so I knew wherever I got picked up, I had to prove myself worthy of a spot on that team. I was pretty nervous not knowing what was going to happen, but it was cool to see a team really wanted me.
“It’s sweet that I reached my goal, but now that I am here I have to continue pushing further.”
Hagglund’s first practice as a pro was “surreal,” he says, especially training alongside veterans such as U.S. national team midfielder Michael Bradley and English national team striker Jermaine Defoe.
The Reds train for about two hours each day and then usually head to the gym after practice.
“It’s just an intense environment,” says Hagglund. “Whatever you are doing, every touch, every move is being evaluated. There’s never an opportunity to take your foot off the pedal—even your diet and how you take care of your body needs to be devoted to making sure those two hours of practice, your body is at an all-time best. Training is fun, but there’s an intensity you don’t see elsewhere.”
Hagglund says he started feeling more comfortable with the team after about a week, but nerves returned once preseason games came around. He played three of the team’s four exhibition games, at first worrying too much about messing up before eventually taking it as an opportunity to play the game he’s loved since he was a kid. Now he hopes to get a chance to play his first official game in his home state with a crowd of his friends and family members in the stands.
“The Columbus Crew was the closest team in the MLS, it was the team I watched the most, it was the team I aspired to be a part of,” says Hagglund, whose last club team was a Columbus Crew Academy U20 team. “I’ve played there in a club game, but it’s going to be way different. This time I’ll be playing there with a ton of fans, and hopefully a lot of people I know. It’s going to be exciting—something I could only dream about as a kid.”
Laurel Pfahler is a full-time freelancer, Lax Magazine correspondent, and former sports reporter for Florida's Treasure Coast Newspapers.You can follow her on Twitter at @LaurelPfahler.