If Toronto FC rookie Nick Hagglund needed any further reminder of just how bad his club’s sometime inept, often incompetent record of dealing with draft picks reads over the eight years of the team’s existence, he needed to do no more than glance across the halfway line before the opening kickoff of Saturday’s 1-0 win over San Jose Earthquakes.
There, in a blue-and-black No. 4 shirt, stood Sam Cronin, Toronto’s FC’s first-round selection, and second pick overall, from the 2009 Major League Soccer SuperDraft. Despite a standout rookie campaign where he played in 27 of 30 MLS games, helped TFC capture its first Canadian championship and won his first international cap as a member of the United States Gold Cup team that year, he was dealt to San Jose less than 18 months after arriving in MLS, for allocation money of all things, by former TFC head coach Predrag (Preki) Radosavljevic.
Of course, the irony is that Cronin, who has gone on to forge a standout MLS career, would have looked right at home as the yin to Michael Bradley’s yang in the heart of the current TFC midfield.
But then, as is the case with so much of Toronto’s chequered history since becoming an MLS expansion team in 2007, it’s simply water under the bridge.
Luckily for Hagglund, this is a vastly different TFC regime to the reign of error that occurred under former head coach/general manager Mo Johnston.
The faith put in him by current head coach Ryan Nelsen was there to see for much of the 90 minutes on Saturday. Playing right back as opposed to his usual position of centre back, Hagglund was clearly given free rein to join the attack whenever he saw an opportunity, and it nearly paid off midway through the first half with a pair of volleys that many would have thought more likely to fly off the boot of Jermain Defoe.
Though he failed to score there, and again with a glancing header from a free kick late on, Nelsen enthused about the youngster’s versatility after a win which lifted TFC up into fourth in the Eastern Conference and back into playoff position, and with numerous games in hand on the teams around it.
“I think he is icing his groin from that volley he did in the first half,” the New Zealander joked. “He is just a lovely guy, that is not afraid of any occasion, he puffs his chest out and just goes for it.
“And whether you put him at striker or you put him in goal he is just that type of personality, and those types of personalities go a long way and not just in soccer but in life. And that’s why he is just a pleasure to have around the place.”
His inclusion in the side certainly paid dividends on Saturday, as minutes after failing to open the scoring from his pair of volleys he was on the receiving end of an arm in the face from former TFC striker Alan Gordon, leaving referee Fortis Bazakos little choice but to point to the spot. Defoe made no mistake from the resulting penalty, scoring his seventh MLS goal of the campaign and fourth game-winner in the process.
For the 21-year-old Cincinnati native, contributing in any way he can is all part of the long process of finding his feet as a professional footballer.
“It’s been hard,” he explained. “I know the first few weeks I thought this is way over my head but the guys around me have always encouraged me, always tell me to keep going, it’s okay to make mistakes and I think that was what really helped me grow as a player.”
Now Hagglund is starting to show the kind of potential that persuaded the club to make him the 10th overall pick back in January’s SuperDraft, garnering some rave reviews and maybe even some consideration for some end-of-season hardware. Like everything else, he simply takes it in stride.
“I mean, rookie of the year award, that’s an accumulation of the entire season, and my mind frame is to take it one day at a time and enjoy my soccer, enjoy being around the team,” he said. “If that’s the case at the end of the year of all the games I play, then that’s the case, but it’s about getting in the playoffs this year and that’s the most important thing.”