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The WTR Top 20, No. 13: Nick Hagglund a defensive force when healthy

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Only injuries could slow down his continued improvement with Toronto FC.

MLS: Eastern Conference Semifinal-Toronto FC at New York Red Bulls Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

It seemed like injuries were the only thing Nick Hagglund couldn’t defend against in 2017. What was an otherwise solid season was interrupted by issues staying healthy, as the 25-year-old was limited to only 15 regular season games in 2017.

Hagglund was an opening day starter for Toronto FC, and kept that role for 11 of the first 12 games of the season. However, he suffered a knee injury in that 12th game of the year against Minnesota United. He returned to the starting lineup at the end of July, only to get hurt again three games later and miss the rest of the regular season.

But in his limited time on the field in 2017, Hagglund remained a big piece of one of the league’s best back lines. When Hagglund is on the field, Toronto FC controls the air, and that makes him a huge asset however the club lines up defensively this year. That’s why — despite limited minutes — he finished 13th in our year-end rankings.

What was perhaps most promising about Hagglund’s 2017 was his ability to step in for Drew Moor in the centre of Toronto’s back three. Moor, while still a crucial part of the club’s spine, is 34 and the club will have to be careful not to overuse him going forward. Having Hagglund as a potential deputy back line leader will help the club balance minutes in a heavy 2018 schedule.

MLS: Eastern Conference Championship-Columbus Crew at Toronto FC John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Another way Hagglund proved to be an asset, particularly during the playoffs, was off the bench. With Hagglund on the field, opponents have difficulty making long balls connect with their target, which forced them to keep it on the ground and made it easier for Toronto to see the game out. He led all TFC players in aerial duels won according to WhoScored, averaging two per match.

He is also excellent at getting the ball out of danger, leading all Toronto FC players with an average of 4.6 clearances per match. In other words, he plays it safe, which is key late in games. Adding to that is the fact that he was tied with Moor this season as the least-dispossessed player on the roster.

Off the field, Hagglund is an important piece as well. The defender is one of the most positive and by all accounts well-liked members of the club, always looking out for his teammates — the type of player that makes a difference on a championship team.

Where Hagglund can take a look to step forward in 2018, other than health and consistency, is his offensive ability. His aerial talent isn’t only a defensive tool, it makes him a real threat going forward as well especially from set pieces. Continuing to get offence from less likely players like Hagglund will be a key to this next season.

His long-term health will remain a question mark going into this season, as knee injuries often aren’t isolated incidents. But he needs to look no further than Jozy Altidore for an example of a player who overcame chronic injury to return dominantly to the field.

While not all scenarios are the same, Toronto FC’s medical staff has done a great job at managing players who were often hurt in the past like Sebastian Giovinco and Altidore and making sure they are fit and ready when it matters most.

That alone makes the outlook more optimistic for Hagglund heading into this year. If he can stay healthy and continue to build on his work from the past two and half seasons then he is a probable starter for Toronto FC this season.