Nick Hagglund’s highlight package for Toronto FC would include his huge header goal against Montreal in the 2016 playoffs, and the team’s MLS Cup victory a year later.
But the 25-year-old said his perseverance through illness and injury means more than any single goal or game.
On the cusp of his 100th appearance for Toronto, Hagglund paused on Thursday to reflect on his roller-coaster career as a centre back with the Reds.
“Appendix. Knees. You’ve got different things every year, and so just to stick with it and keep grinding when sometimes the cards feel against you, I’m just proud of it,” Hagglund said.
“It’s an honour, to be honest. I’ve been here for five years and to be a part of this club, and to be a part of this organization, to watch the growth has been incredible, and I’ve been so glad to be a part of it.”
Appendicitis, knee injuries and a hamstring strain have limited Hagglund to 36 starts over the past four seasons, but this year has been as much about grinding it out through the team’s struggles than any individual woes.
The struggling club is in Orlando on Saturday in a battle between two teams desperately trying to climb up the standings. Orlando is ninth in the Eastern Conference, one place and three points ahead of reigning MLS Cup champion Toronto.
“This is a six-point game, six-point swing,” Hagglund said. “One team loses three points, the other team gains three points, so it’s important these next couple of games, we’re looking at important games.”
Hagglund came up big last month in Toronto’s thrilling, come-from-behind 4-4 tie with D.C. United. Coach Greg Vanney pushed the defender up into the attack, and he scored a pair of late header goals.
Vanney said he’s enjoyed watching Hagglund’s growth in Toronto.
“For Nick, he’s always heart and soul, [putting] everything into the game. He’s a competitor, and he loves to play,” Vanney said. “His growth over the years has always been about taking his athleticism and some of the power and things that he has and adding game reading and recognizing situations, being able to see things early, communicate around him and ahead of him, and he’s obviously making progress and strides in that area.”
“Hopefully in the next 100 [games], he’ll continue to add little things to his game to keep looking like that mature veteran centre back that he can become.”
Vanney will count on Hagglund’s steady presence on the back line Saturday, when Toronto looks for its first win in six games (0-3-2). Orlando, meanwhile, is hoping to avoid its 10th consecutive loss.
Toronto has won seven of their eight meetings with Orlando, outscoring the Lions 22-8.
“Obviously, Orlando being one of those teams between us and a playoff spot, it makes it a little more interesting, but I think all points matter right now,” Vanney said.
Despite the disappointment of Toronto’s season, Vanney and his players were upbeat at practice. They warmed up with a game of dodgeball. They chatted about Sunday’s World Cup final, and Saturday’s expected MLS debut of former Manchester United star Wayne Rooney.
“I remember him banging goals for Man U pretty much week in, week out,” Hagglund said. “It’s exciting to see him to be playing on the same field with him eventually.”
The attacking midfielder who lit up the scoreboard in the English Premier League debuts for D.C. United against the Vancouver Whitecaps on Saturday, the latest aging superstar to join the MLS.
“If it’s a guy who can make the league better, make their team better, fits the dynamic of what they want, then it becomes a very interesting add from a league perspective,” Vanney said. “If he’s the right guy, he’s going to make D.C. difficult down the stretch. ... I’m less enamoured by the names and more the player and how they fit into the league and their teams.”
As for the World Cup final between France and Croatia, Hagglund has “had France from the beginning, so I’m going to continue to ride ’em.”
Vanney said he wouldn’t bet against Croatia.
“I looked it up and they have about four million people in Croatia, and that’s impressive,” Vanney said. “It’s hard to root against them, so I’m going to watch more as a fan than somebody who really has a horse in the race.”
Hagglund said French teammate Chris Mavinga has been “ecstatic” over his country’s World Cup success.
“He’s got a flag hanging out,” Hagglund laughed. “He’s got jerseys on all the time, I swear he wears it every day to training.”