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Who TFC Were: Nick Hagglund

The underrated centre-back who pushed TFC into the MLS Cup Final.

Portland Timbers v Toronto FC Lucas Oleniuk/Toronto Star via Getty Images

2014 was a different era of Major League Soccer: I was becoming a serious fan of Toronto FC, and Cubo Torres was a dominating striker for Chivas USA. So it’s not completely unsurprising to say that the MLS SuperDraft was completely different from now, too.

On the face of it, the changes to the draft don’t seem all too remarkable. But when I think about it more, radical changes have happened to how the draft operates and how it is used within Major League Soccer. The last MLS SuperDraft was hosted virtually, some first-round picks weren’t even signed to the first team, the fourth round was axed, some teams (like Philadelphia) trade all their picks every season because they solely rely on their academies for domestic talent, etc. Overall, the MLS SuperDraft is not what it used to be, in the sense that MLS teams just don’t care about it as much as they used to. Some people have even called for the whole thing to be abolished, but I don’t put myself in that school of thought when considering that MLS stars like Daryl Dike, Tajon Buchanan, Miles Robinson and more have all been produced from the American college system in recent years.

Back in 2014, the SuperDraft was beginning to fade in importance, but it remained a crucial roster-building event that would produce many players who would get consistent game-time in their first MLS season. MLS teams were looking for players who didn’t just have high potential, but also could shore up weaker spots in their squad.

Toronto FC, seeking to shore up some of their defensive needs, drafted centre-back Nick Hagglund 10th overall in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft. Something interesting to note is that Toronto FC decided to trade for the 10th pick in the MLS SuperDraft to get Hagglund for certain, trading away their 15th overall pick and allocation money to Philadelphia Union. TFC’s GM, Tim Bezbatchenko, stated that he liked Hagglund because of his physical capabilities with regards to his speed and jumping abilities, his positioning, and how he doesn’t make many mistakes while at the back.

SOCCER: JAN 16 MLS Superdraft Photo by Andy Mead/YCJ/Icon SMI/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Before signing for Toronto FC, the Ohioan went to Xavier University, a local university in Cincinnati (his hometown and birthplace) and played soccer there from 2010 to 2013. While playing for the Xavier Musketeers, he made 81 appearances, scoring four goals, and getting 11 assists — a rather unusual high offensive contribution from a player who played as a centre-back for Toronto FC. I can’t find any information about him playing in a more offensive position consistently, so perhaps he was just that dominant of a player for Xavier. His accolades prove that too, with him being recognized with numerous college awards throughout his college soccer career. In 2020, Hagglund was inducted into the Xavier University hall of fame, having the honours of being the most decorated player in Xavier University soccer history. Nick is a real legend back there.

With Toronto FC, he immediately got consistent game time playing alongside club captain Steven Caldwell. While Caldwell’s experience and leadership produced the tactical side of the defence, Hagglund’s youth and physicality helped provide an athletic edge that was greatly needed in the backline. That being said, Hagglund still had a long way to develop (he was prone to making the occasional egregious mistake) and whenever Caldwell was unable to play, the defence lacked a bit of defensive intelligence in my opinion. This might’ve also been because of the lack of a quality right-back and defensive midfielder as well, so not all the blame goes on the central defence. Anyway, after the 2014 season, Toronto FC would miss out on the playoffs and would have a middle to lower-tier defence (compared to other teams’ goals against record), conceding 54 goals.

Toronto FC beat the Montreal Impact 5-2 in the second game to win the Eastern Conference Finals and to advance in the MLS Cup Final Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Despite his initial faults as a player, Hagglund was still viewed as the future of Toronto’s defence, because he displayed his prevalent athletic and technical capabilities, and was always working hard to improve as a footballer. In 2015, Toronto FC took a regressive turn with their defence, despite their efforts to upgrade their backline. Hagglund’s job pushed to the bench at the start of the season, as Toronto attempted to reduce the number of goals scored on them by signing Damien Perquis, an experienced Polish centre-back. A few games into the season against the Columbus Crew, Caldwell got injured which allowed Hagglund to get subbed on at halftime and get some needed game time. Unfortunately for Caldwell, he would retire after that injury as these constant injuries had been severely hindering his time with the team along with the team’s defensive performances. Hagglund would get more opportunities until he was sidelined in July from an appendectomy. This put him out for months and led to him getting only 12 appearances in 2015 — significantly less than his 25 appearances in his rookie year. In 2015, Toronto FC would break records, making the playoffs while conceding the most goals in the league, 58 of them. Given Hagglund’s low-playing time, this was mostly not to do with him.

2016 and 2017 were the golden years for both Toronto FC and Nick Hagglund’s performances. Although he didn’t play as much as his first season, getting 16 appearances (8 starts) in 2016 and 15 appearances (13 starts) in 2017, he began to perform well under Greg Vanney’s preferred 3-5-2 formation when he got the opportunity. Toronto became the third-best defence in the league in 2016 and the second-best in 2017, and Hagglund improved along with the team, making much fewer mistakes at the backline while still retaining the physical and aerial presence he always was. Keep in mind that he was a crucial and frankly underrated part of Toronto FC’s playoff run, starting six games, scoring one goal and getting two assists. That playoff (header) goal helped advance Toronto into the MLS Cup finals in 2016 as he gave the Reds a 3-2 lead in the second leg of the Eastern Conference Final, tying them on aggregate and away goals against Montreal Impact so that we could go into extra time and eventually knock them out. Without his goal (at the climax of the fans’ Icelandic clap) Toronto FC would’ve never made it to the 2016 MLS Cup Final. That’s a thought to chew on.

While Toronto didn’t win the MLS Cup in 2016, it’s great to see that he was able to get his redemption, along with the rest of the team, by winning the MLS Cup Final in 2017. He continues his quality form along with the rest of the team, making 15 appearances in the Reds’ championship-winning season.

Honestly, I can’t quite remember his 2018 season (that season is the dark ages in my mind along with 2021), but most players (aside from a few players like Auro Jr. and Jonathan Osorio) were at least a little disappointing. So although he did score three goals in his 20 appearances with the club, it was clearly not the best season of his career given the fact that the club conceded 64 goals.

Since I’ve mentioned quite a bit about Nick’s goal-scoring efforts, he’s great at heading. Watch this highlight reel of Hagglund in college and you’ll know what I’m talking about. He provided a few much-needed headed goals back in the day. In terms of another talent, he also almost became TFC’s starting goalkeeper after making a solid save (as goalkeeper) in a 2018 preseason matchup versus Tijuana. The man is multi-talented.

After Toronto FC missed the playoffs, there were some major roster changes over the off-season. One was Sebastian Giovinco departing to Saudi Arabia, as well as Victor Vazquez heading off to Qatar. Another important departure (albeit low-profile) was Nick Hagglund being traded to expansion side FC Cincinnati. He moved there for $200 000 in GAM, $100 000 in TAM and Toronto moved up to #1 in the allocation ranking — a fairly good deal for a player who wasn’t used as a consistent starter in his last few seasons. Perhaps that’s an indictment of how deep Toronto’s team was just a few years back.

Nick joining Cincinnati was a dream move for someone like him, given that it’s his hometown. Since he was traded to FC Cincy, he has made 57 appearances for the team. Generally speaking, he has been a consistent name on their team sheet throughout their first three seasons in Major League Soccer, sometimes playing as a right-back this season due to lack of depth in the right-back position. I have not watched Cincinnati play much since they’ve joined MLS (so I’m not going to try to lie my way through writing about his performances with them) but it is an inherent fact that they have been quite poor at defending each season so far. That being said, Cincinnati has been poor in a ton of positions throughout their time in MLS (including the managers), so I happen to think that the reason their defence is poor is not so much to do with him specifically, and more to do with the entire team as a whole. That’s just my thought.

Toronto FC v FC Cincinnati Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Hagglund was no Raphael Varane while playing for Toronto FC, but he was a solid player when called on. He seemed to have a great attitude towards the beautiful game, always seeming to improve year on year. Many folks, including me, would state that he was one of the most underrated players to play for Toronto FC during the era that he played in, often being overshadowed by players like Chris Mavinga and Drew Moor who were great as well. Hagglund is a player from a diminishing part of MLS: the MLS SuperDraft. His generation were some of the last young players where it was common to get consistent game time right after being drafted, allowing them to get practical experience to develop into quality players.

One of the things I liked most about Hagglund was his character — at least from the outside, he seemed like a genuinely nice guy. While I liked him as a player on the pitch, he was probably my favourite player at TFC off the pitch while he was there. I encourage anyone reading until this point to watch his video with Toronto FC where he describes how he met the love of his life when he was just a little kid. It’s a real heart-touching video that I enjoyed watching when I saw it for the first time a few years ago.

At this point, 29-year-old Nick Hagglund is no longer much of the young gun he used to be with Toronto FC. He may not be one of the most important players that ever set foot for the franchise, but he deserves recognition for the underrated player that he was while playing for us. While his FC Cincinnati’s tenure in MLS wasn’t the greatest, I hope he is given a chance to bounce back as Hagglund is a free agent after the club elected not to exercise his option this upcoming season. Nick deserves another MLS Cup, as long as it’s not at the expense of Chris Mavinga hoisting another one around the field for the Reds.

SOCCER: AUG 04 MLS - FC Cincinnati at New York Red Bulls Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images