After being acquired by Philadelphia Union in early February, left back Kai Wagner has had to adjust to many things. The 22-year-old was in a new country surrounded by new teammates and had to learn a new system with preseason already underway. Four matches into the 2019 Major League Soccer slate, Wagner seems to be handling himself well in the United States.
“It’s much faster than the third league in Germany, so you always have to keep your head up and don’t make mistakes,” Wagner told PhiladelphiaUnion.com after helping his side to a win over Columbus Crew. “When you do make a mistake, you don’t cry; you just stand up and try to do your best. In every game you have to be careful and prepared for every situation.”
In the Union’s current system, fullbacks like Wagner are called upon to provide both defensive cover and an attacking presence in the final third. Wagner’s two-way game was showcased by his contribution to the Union’s goal against Atlanta United. Racing up the left flank, Wagner received a flick from Fafa Picault and fired a centering pass through a pair of defenders to Brenden Aaronson, who ducked out of traffic and fired home his first professional goal. That ability to recognize when to get forward comes from the many hours the young German puts in at the Power Training Complex.
“On the left side you have to be very fit and you have to increase your fitness every moment that you can, and I think I’m doing that well so far,” Wagner said after the Union concluded training on Tuesday. “I want to get my game better every training.”
While getting forward is essential to Philly's attacks, Wagner is still a defender and must prioritize his positional responsibilities shutting down the opposition's forays forward. After winning seven tackles and making nine interceptions in the season opener against Toronto FC, Wagner has increased his defensive stats in each match with Saturday seeing the 22-year-old collect 16 tackles and 14 interceptions.
“For me it’s always good to move forward and not just backwards, and I’ve been working on that part of my game. You have to do a lot of backwards work as a defender.”
That work contributed to the Union’s first clean sheet of 2019. But Wagner also credits the strong chemistry amongst his teammates on the back line, including, Auston Trusty, Jack Elliott and Ray Gaddis. All four players have started every match thus far.
“We don’t just have [chemistry] on the pitch but we understand each other in the annex or the training fields. I think it’s really helpful for a defender to have the same teammates each match and it has shown in each match so far. It was very nice to get a clean sheet; we try to do our very best in every game and against Atlanta we were close to the clean sheet but the last 20 minutes we let up the goal,” Wagner said.
With four points claimed in the last two contests, Wagner and the Union now are preparing for MLS-newcomers FC Cincinnati, who are led by former Portland Timbers striker Fanendo Adi. While the orange and blue have netted five goals from five different players over the last two weekends, Wagner says his group is confident after last week’s shutout.
“I think against Columbus it was really good and we didn’t give up many chances, so it was good to get the clean sheet. Now the goal is to get one against Cincinnati and that will allow us to win the game.”
The Union make their inaugural trip to face FC Cincinnati on Saturday, March 30th. Kick off from Nippert Stadium is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. and will be broadcast on PHL17.