Russell: Former Xavier soccer star Hagglund propels Toronto FC to MLS Cup finale

68th-minute goal was 'exhilarating'

There have been milestone moments in Nick Hagglund's life, but none more electrifying than the 68th minute of Toronto FC's match against Montreal in the Major League Soccer Eastern Conference championship.

That's when Hagglund, a former Xavier standout soccer player, connected on Justin Morrow's pass from the edge of the box. Hagglund executed a header to propel the ball into the back of the net and unlock a tie score in the Nov. 30 match in Toronto.

Toronto rode the lead to a 5-2 victory (7-5 on aggregate) and a place in Saturday's 8 p.m. MLS Cup finale opposite Western Conference champion Seattle at BMO Field.

The goal, Hagglund said, was "exhilarating."

"It's really hard to put into words what the emotions were like at that very moment, but I feel like it was the culmination of the whole year. From the beginning to the end, it's been kind of a roller coaster. Lots of ups and downs for me personally," said Hagglund, a West Chester native and Lakota West grad.

"If someone would have told me that I would be in this position to score such a big goal for my team, I don't know if I would have believed them."

The third-year defender reveled in the achievement as his wife, Mary, and parents, Sue and Stu, cheered from the stands. Then Hagglund and his team celebrated the club's first MLS Cup appearance, dancing and hugging and, he said, "having a good old time."

TORONTO, ON - NOVEMBER 30: Nick Hagglund #6 of Toronto FC scores a goal during the second half of the MLS Eastern Conference Final, Leg 2 game against Montreal Impact at BMO Field on November 30, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

It's hard to imagine that Hagglund didn't consider himself professional soccer material when then-new Xavier coach Andy Fleming signed him in 2010. Hagglund was among nine members in Fleming's first recruiting class, enlisted to invigorate a program that had gone 2-13-1 the year before.

Hagglund's athleticism and talent were obvious to Fleming his freshman season, in which Xavier went 10-7-4 and advanced to the NCAA Tournament.

"At the end of his freshman year, at his meeting, I said, 'You might be able to do this for a living. You might want to start thinking about it.' He probably heard what I said but wasn't really listening," Fleming said. "He got Atlantic 10 defender of the year as a junior, and that's when people started asking about it."

Hagglund came in as an athletically gifted player who out-hustled his opponents. In time, Fleming said, he evolved into an elite talent who could read actions and anticipate the angles of set plays.

"He was one of the best athletes in the country when he was here as far as jumping ability, running ability, strength, his ability to head the ball. He's the best header of the ball I've coached in 20 years," Fleming said.

Xavier posted a 46-22-5 record and went to three NCAA tournaments in four years with Hagglund, who was a conference defender of the year for the A-10 as well as the Big East. Some of his teammates -- Luke Spencer, Matt Walker -- were absorbed into the professional realm, and Hagglund received his big break, too.

He was taken by Toronto in the first round of the MLS SuperDraft in January of 2014. He was the 10th overall pick.

"I wouldn't be where I was if it wasn't for Coach Fleming and the whole Xavier soccer program. I didn't think professional soccer was an option when I was going to play college soccer. I just loved soccer and I wanted to play in college," Hagglund said. "It was a way to pay for school and get a great education."

It didn't take long for Hagglund to find his niche in the professional ranks. He started 23 of 25 games for the Reds in 2014, scoring two goals and logging 2,088 minutes.

The next season wasn't quite so seamless. Hagglund underwent an appendectomy in July of 2015 and then hurt his knee and was out six months.

He was sent down to Toronto FC II, the minor league affiliate, for four matches to start 2016 (including a 2-1 loss to FC Cincinnati in Toronto). Because he hadn't played for the major league club at the start, he was low on the depth chart for center-backs, and he knew he had a long climb ahead.

"I just wasn't very confident in myself," Hagglund said. "I didn't know if I was ever going to get the opportunity to show that I could play. I had to be incredibly patient. I started to get some games in the middle of the season, but I didn't get regular starts until the last three weeks of the year."

Hagglund kept in touch with Fleming regularly through texts, and Fleming encouraged him to stay the course.

"If you are good enough, they will find you and play you, and that's what's finally happened," Fleming said.

Fleming cheered on his former player from afar, watching the Eastern Conference final from home, and said Hagglund's gifts extend well beyond his soccer talent. Hagglund's easy-going personality and humbleness, he said, will make him a tremendous mentor someday.

For now, Hagglund, 24, is just thrilled about the goal, the win, and what's next for Toronto FC. With the MLS Cup final on the horizon, Hagglund said he couldn't have excelled without help from his hometown.

"I really just want to thank everyone from Cincinnati," Hagglund said. "There's a lot of people at (Cincinnati United Premier), there's my high school coach, just the community in general -- my family and friends, everyone back home, Xavier. I just really appreciate all the support and love I got after the game. It was cool to see how many people were actually watching."

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