CINCINNATI — When Major League Soccer announced last May that FC Cincinnati would be joining the league as an expansion team this season, Lakota West High School and Xavier University alumnus Nick Hagglund knew that meant at some point he likely would get a chance to play in front of his hometown.
Then a defender for Toronto FC, he was thrilled with the thought of just doing so as a visiting player.
On Wednesday, Hagglund received an even greater opportunity — the call to come home. FC Cincinnati had acquired him in a trade with Toronto FC in exchange for $300,000 in allocation money and a swap of allocation ranking. He becomes the first Cincinnati native to join the club’s MLS roster.
“It was amazing,” Hagglund said Friday following his first day of training with the new team. “Obviously, it was a little bittersweet because I thank Toronto for everything and I had a great five years at Toronto, but to come home, be with my family, play in front of my hometown, it's a dream as a kid to do that. If someone told the 5-year-old Nick, who dreamed to be an MLS player, would be playing in front of his hometown, he would have called you crazy, so it's awesome to see this come to fruition. I'm just so excited to get out there with these guys. I'm already excited about the locker room and the guys that are here.”
Hagglund, a 2010 graduate of West and four-year starter for Xavier University, spent the first five years of his professional career with Toronto after the Canadian MLS side selected him 10th overall in the 2014 SuperDraft.
FC Cincinnati wasn’t even in the picture then.
The 26-year-old defender has made 88 MLS regular-season appearances, including 67 starts, with TFC, and in 2017, he was part of the squad that claimed Toronto’s first-ever MLS Cup championship. Last season, he scored a career-high three goals in 20 appearances.
“Going away, there was nothing here, so to see it grow has been fun,” said Hagglund, who was a two-time conference player of the year for Xavier and had been a second-team all-state selection as a midfielder for Lakota West his senior year in 2009. “I wouldn't say it's too weird because I saw people get behind it. Cincinnati sports fans are the best, you know, so when I saw a team come, I knew it was something that would happen eventually.”
Hagglund had been following the club since it launched as a United Soccer League team in August of 2015 and said he was a little jealous he couldn’t be part of the growth from the beginning.
Toronto FC had a “2” team that played in the USL, and whenever players came back from games at Nippert Stadium the past three years, he loved hearing how impressed they were with Cincinnati’s club and fan support.
“It was unbelievable the amount of people that came out and supported the team and how the city rallied behind them,” Hagglund said of the club’s start in USL. “It was just cool to see. The TFC2 guys would come back and tell me, 'It's unbelievable. We had 18,000 people at the game.' It was cool to hear them talk about it.”
Hagglund knew before it became official that FC Cincinnati was going to MLS. His sister, Jenna, a former international volleyball player, worked briefly with the club and served as a liaison to MLS Commissioner Don Garber on the day of the announcement. It was then Hagglund started picturing the chance to play in front of his hometown.
Club president and general manager Jeff Berding let Jenna, who now works for Proctor & Gamble, know via text that her brother was coming home as soon as the paperwork was finalized. Berding said he simply sent a thumbs-up emoji with blue and orange diamonds.
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Meanwhile, Hagglund’s wife was tasked with spreading the news among the rest of the family while he said his goodbyes to teammates. He found out about the trade just before they were about to sit down to a meal together and didn’t get to speak with his parents, who still live in West Chester, until about four hours later on FaceTime.
“They were ecstatic,” Hagglund said. “My sister went overseas and came back to Cincinnati. I went to Canada and came back, so for all of us to be together, it's really special.”
His phone hasn’t stopped buzzing since the news broke.
Now, Hagglund is just trying to settle in with his new club. He arrived Thursday and practiced with the team Friday before FC Cincinnati prepared to head down to Bradenton, Florida, for two weeks of preseason training and games at IMG Academy. The team opens the preseason schedule Wednesday against Montreal Impact.
Hagglund knows eyes will be on him this year as the local star but said it doesn’t add any extra pressure.
“Soccer is a team sport,” Hagglund said. “It's not just one person, so I think this club embodies that. This is a team where we are here to go through the ups and downs together, so I don't think there is any pressure. It excites me. I want to perform well for my city, and I'm excited for the opportunity.”
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FC Cincinnati is counting on that extra motivation pushing Hagglund to be the best player he can be.
Head coach Alan Koch said Hagglund had always been on the team’s list of players the staff was interested in trying to bring in, and it was fortunate it worked out in the end.
“We're really excited to bring him in,” Koch said. “Honestly, it's exciting to have another Cincinnati kid playing for us. It's a big part of our club, we want to be integrated with the community and we showed that obviously with Austin (Berry) being our captain originally and (fellow West graduate) Matt Bahner coming in too (for 2017 and 2018). It's going to be fantastic to have Nick on our squad. To have a guy from Cincy coming back and playing for our club is great for him but it's great for us and for our community and for the young kids and for the youth coaches in the city to be able to say, ‘Nick Hagglund plays for our team, why can't you too?’ It definitely adds something extra to just bringing in a quality player.”