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Rookie defender Nick Hagglund turns heads early in his career at Toronto FC

03/12/2014 01:04 EDT | Updated 05/12/2014 05:59 EDT
Toronto FC picked Nick Hagglund as one for the future. But the athletic defender from Xavier University has already proved to be a handy asset in the here and now.

With fullbacks Justin Morrow (hip), Bradley Orr (calf) and Mark Bloom (quadricep) all injured at various times during the MLS pre-season, the 21-year-old rookie centre back was shifted to right back — to rave reviews from manager Ryan Nelsen.

"I'm more than happy," Nelsen said after a recent practice. "He played out of position, wasn't scared of the occasion at all. Loved it, actually. You could tell he's a guy that you put in front of 100,000 and he'll love it even more. So yeah, I couldn't be happier with Nick. A great acquisition."

With players returning from injury ahead of Toronto's MLS season opener in Seattle on Saturday, Hagglund will likely watch others play. But he has already shown why Toronto traded up in the MLS SuperDraft to get him.

Slated to pick 15th in the January draft, Toronto sent allocation money to the Philadelphia Union to get Hagglund in the 10th slot. The concern was if they didn't, someone else would take the six-foot-one, 193-pound Ohio native.

While he had a good interview session with Toronto, he had not considered they would pick him. Hagglund thought he might go late in the first round.

No stranger to changing positions, he started his collegiate career at forward, moving back to midfield and then centre back at the end of his freshman year after a change in coaches. Right back was a new challenge, however.

In his four seasons with the Musketeers, Hagglund made 80 starts with four goals and 11 assists. He featured in 31 Xavier shutouts and was Defensive Player of the Year in the Big East in 2012 and '13.

Hagglund is smart enough to know that rookies usually play minor roles. So flexible is his middle name.

"I've been taught to be versatile," said a smiling Hagglund. "Wherever they need me, I'm going to go in."

Hagglund said he had high expectations for life as a pro soccer player, but admits the reality "has blown out of the water what I expected."

"The way Toronto FC treats its players is incredible — just like how they house us, how they take care of us at the facilities. The facilities themselves. Anything that you need, they're willing to drop everything and help you out."

Hagglund has found a downtown condo. It's a little pricey but he wanted to be in the middle of things.

"I thought if I'm going to live in the city, I might as well enjoy it. You never know how many times you get this opportunity. So I'm trying to live where everything's happening."

So far, he's made it to the new aquarium and not much else.

Apart from a few days off following the mid-January draft, Hagglund has been hard at work trying to learn his craft. Time off is rare and the reality is even when there is an off day, the gym beckons.

Hagglund's not complaining. He has savoured every minute of his young pro career.

"It's a blur but it's sweet."

In recent days, Hagglund has been able to move back to centre back in practice where he serves as understudy to captain Steven Caldwell, Doneil Henry and Gale Agbossoumonde.

Caldwell is a vocal on-field teacher for Hagglund. And the rookie has been soaking in direction from Nelsen, an accomplished centre back himself as a player.

"I love how Ryan is in the practice with us," said Hagglund. "And when the centre backs are working, he'll come and work with us and be in the drills with us and really talk about what positioning looks like. He's very engaged with us, he's not distant. So he's right next to us, teaching us."

Given he has only spent three years (and three games as a freshman) at centre back, Hagglund welcomes that instruction.

"That's why I'm so excited to be with Stevie and Ryan Nelsen and these guys that knows this position so well," he said. "I pick up little tidbits every time I'm out there."

U.S. international midfielder Michael Bradley, while a newcomer to the team, has also helped set the TFC standard high, according to Hagglund.

Caldwell and Bradley have also helped set the tone in the locker-room, forging a sense of brotherhood no matter the reputation or salary.

"That's one thing that I was most surprised at at Toronto FC," said Hagglund. "I've heard in professional (soccer) that everybody's out to take care of their family, provide for their family. And I was like that's going to be nervy, because I'm used to Xavier where this is a family, this is a brotherhood ... I thought professional (soccer) was going to be like everyone out for themselves.

"And in the locker-room at TFC, it's been completely different. Everyone has been so welcoming to me, even the older guys that have like a huge reputation and have all the pressure in the world on their backs, are willing to like hang us with us and take us under their wings. So it's been great."

Asked about his goals this season, Hagglund thinks team.

"I just want the team to win," he said. "That's the goal to be a playoff team this year.

"And anything that I can do to do that."

Hagglund's varied background might prove valuable at the other end of the field some day. A former forward who is good in the air, Hagglund was a target man whose role was to hold the ball up and bring others into the play.

While young, Hagglund knows the stakes are high — especially at a club that has made the elusive playoffs the goal this season.

He knows each day is an audition, unlike college where the occasional misstep might be excused.

"This is your job," he said. "You have a bad day at any work place, you're going to get in trouble for that. That's the altitude here and that's a step up from college for sure."

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