At the dawn of the New Year few in Toronto were talking about the MLS SuperDraft, as even the most committed supporters of Toronto FC had far bigger news to talk about. With Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley being rumoured, and then announced, as the club's newest acquisitions most were discussing the present, and not the future, of the team. But Tim Bezbatchenko and Ryan Nelsen would give a silent vote of confidence to someone who could be a very important part of that future: 21-year-old Nick Hagglund.
Toronto made their intentions clear when they traded up from their spot at 15th overall to take Hagglund, a product of Xavier University, 10th overall. Toronto was looking to add some defensive depth heading into the draft, a position in which they have lacked, to say the least, over the years. Acquiring Hagglund to fill this role was, however, a bit surprising considering Kyle Venter and a couple of other highly touted defensive prospects were still available.
Four months later, almost to the day, Hagglund was facing the biggest challenge of his professional career in only his third professional start, against the New York Red Bulls. He had made his debut in early April, as part of a 2-0 victory against the Columbus Crew in his home state of Ohio. But despite an excellent performance it took him more than a month to get another start, which came in the second leg of the Voyageurs Cup Semi-Final against the Vancouver Whitecaps.
Once ahead he played very well, despite playing out of position at right back. He played so well that after a full 90 minutes plus extra time he was trotting out in the starting eleven less than a week later. Even Hagglund was surprised at how quickly he was reinserted back onto the field.
"I was pretty tired, you could see, from the Vancouver game," explained Hagglund. "Playing at right back running up and down the line and I cramped pretty bad. I was surprised that I got the call."
But get the call he did, and into a situation that would make any centre back of his age queasy: playing against the New York Red Bulls, and specifically Thierry Henry, one of the living legends of the sport. Not only did Toronto's backline have to deal with Henry, but also the league's leading scorer Bradley Wright-Phillips. Hagglund's maturity, however, was fully on display with his analysis of how to handle playing against a global icon.
"You can't be in awe of him and let him blow by you and score goals," said Hagglund. "You just have to be more mentally sharp [and] on your game and making sure you do all the little things."
This strong mentality is something that manager Ryan Nelsen has noted about his young centre back. It is a fact that would subside his fears of starting an inexperienced rookie against one of the league's premier strike partnerships.
"One of the things that I admire about Nick is that he has no fear, no fear in life, let alone a football game" said Nelsen of the 21-year-old. "He is going to be a success at whatever he does, because of his personality; he is such an energetic and charismatic man. So I had no problem about who he was coming up against because the bigger the challenge the more he rises up to it."
Rise up to the challenge is exactly what Hagglund did. While he definitely betrayed his age on a couple of plays during the match, overall it was an incredibly impressive performance from the youngster. After a shaky start, he would be given a ‘welcome to MLS moment' that seemed to regain his focus: a heavy tackle from Henry that would send him flying and would earn the Frenchman a booking. Henry was quick to acknowledge the mistake he had made, shaking hands with Hagglund.
After the match the young centre back was all smiles about the incident, explaining how it dialed in his focus.
"I was like ‘foul me again, I'll shake your hand again," laughed Hagglund. "That was the moment when I was like ‘I'm on the same field as this guy, I've got to play.'"
But in soccer, especially on the back end and even more as a young player, nobody can ever accomplish anything substantial on their own. The importance of his teammates and their wisdom and experience is something that certainly isn't lost on Hagglund. Playing directly beside Steven Caldwell has been particularly educational.
"It's great, Steven's always talking to me, always letting me know. He's encouraging me to continue what I am doing. I love playing with Steven and Bradley [Orr], and whoever else is playing beside me has always been supportive, in giving me tips and how to grow and play as a player."
He still has plenty of growing to do, and has undoubtedly been lucky on a few occasions that, had an opponent converted a chance, public opinion of his play would have been affected. But Hagglund is also developing very well both as a professional and as an individual in Toronto. He is putting plenty of confidence in the aforementioned vote given to him by management.