Hagglund faces tough road back into TFC starting line-up

Toronto FC defender Nick Hagglund. (Nathan Denette/CP)

TORONTO – Injuries to pro athletes rarely, if ever, come at a good time, but in the case of Nick Hagglund, his was especially ill-timed.

After enjoying somewhat of a breakout 2016 campaign in which he played a key role in Toronto FC’s run to the MLS Cup, Hagglund picked up where he left off at the beginning of this season. The young defender firmly established himself a regular fixture in coach Greg Vanney’s lineup, as he started 11 of the first 12 games of the year, all the while preventing off-season signing Chris Mavinga from cracking the starting 11.

Such was the consistency and quality of Hagglund’s performances that he was being talked about as a potential candidate for the mid-season All-Star Game. Then it came all undone for the 24-year-old defender when he sustained a torn MCL in his left knee in a contest against the Columbus Crew on May 13.

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Hagglund ended up being sidelined for close to two months, missing eight consecutive league games, before returning to action on July 22 when he started against New York City FC. He also came on as a substitute for the final 26 minutes the following game against the Colorado Rapids.

The native of Cincinnati has looked solid in his two appearances since coming back from his lengthy injury layoff, but his path towards regaining his spot as a starter is now blocked by Mavinga. During Hagglund’s extended absence, the Frenchman slotted seamlessly into TFC’s back line, and has been one of the Reds’ most consistent players over the last two months.

Mavinga has forged a strong relationship with fellow defenders Drew Moor and Eriq Zavaleta, and the defence has hardly missed a beat with the Frenchman deputizing for Hagglund. What’s more, Vanney isn’t inclined to change things up with his three-man back line unless he has to, which leaves Hagglund, as well as veteran defender Jason Hernandez, as the odd men out at the moment.

“Nick was one our guys who was out for a pretty long time, and so when you’re out for that long then it takes you a little while to adapt to all things: reading plays, settling in, being comfortable in transition moment,” Vanney said ahead of Saturday’s home game against the Portland Timbers.

“We’ve got a group of three who’ve had a good run, so you don’t make switches for the sake of making a switch. You make them because they are necessary or appropriate,” Vanney said ahead of Saturday’s home game against the Portland Timbers.

To his credit, Hagglund accepts the situation for what it is, and recognizes the only thing he can do is to continue to work hard in training sessions in order to give Vanney something to think about when he’s fill out his team sheet on game days.

“Every day I’m going to come in and push the guys,” Hagglund stated.

“We’re all competing. We all know there’s only three spots for five [defenders], so whoever is sharpest that week is going to be who’s out there. We’re going to have the best guys out there when the time comes for the playoffs.”

While Mavinga has the starting left fullback role locked down at the moment, Vanney did admit he’s going to try to keep giving Hagglund opportunities to play in the near future in order to bring him back to full speed. Vanney might even give Hagglund a run out on Saturday against an opponent that the defender has enjoyed great success against in the past.

During his rookie campaign, in September of 2014, Hagglund scored his first two league goals to help Toronto come from behind to earn a dramatic 3-2 win over Portland at BMO Field.

“It was a game of two halves for me. I made a mistake in the first half that gave [Portland] a goal. Second half, I turned it around and bagged a brace. My family was all there so it was amazing experience in front the home crowd,” Hagglund recalled.

NOTES: Aside from defender Steven Beitashour and midfielder Benoit Cheyrou (both out with long-term injuries), Toronto will also be missing rookie defender Oyvind Alseth on Saturday. The Norwegian sat out last week’s match with a foot injury and isn’t ready to return to action… Alex Bono is one victory short of tying Stefan Frei’s club record for most wins (20) by a TFC goalkeeper… The Reds are unbeaten at home this season, with eight wins and three draws… Saturday’s match at BMO Field is the only meeting this campaign between Toronto and Portland… The Timbers won the lone contest last season, 2-1 at home on May 1. Will Johnson scored for TFC in a losing effort.

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