CHESTER, Pa. — Six months ago, Philadelphia Union left back Kai Wagner was playing in the German third division for Würzburger Kickers and didn’t know who Union sporting director Ernst Tanner was.
A connection between Tanner and Wagner’s agent sparked interest in a move to Major League Soccer, and on February 6, a deal for the 22-year-old left back was made official.
“I didn’t know Ernst Tanner before, but my agent knows him very well and he told me about him,” Wagner said. “He’s a good name in Germany. Everybody knows him in Germany.”
“When you’re from Germany, you don’t think of going to MLS at first,” Wagner continued. “But I think now some German players are talking a lot about Philadelphia and MLS. It’s a good step and for me it was a great opportunity to hear that they want to have me, and I didn’t have to think about it.”
Wagner initially was viewed as a backup option to Homegrown Matthew Real, but he earned the starting job in Week 1 and hasn’t looked back.
The 22-year-old German has started 14 games for the Union, every game he has been available for selection, and in a short period, he has become one of the top fullbacks in MLS.
“For an unknown coming from the lower leagues in Germany to step up and have the season that he’s had is very impressive,” Union head coach Jim Curtin said. “I think he’s been a top left back in our league.”
One of Wagner’s best performances of the season came on Sunday against Minnesota United, when he recorded five blocks, five clearances, two tackles and two interceptions.
“I think when you see the statistics from the defenders, I think we had a good game,” Wagner said. “We had a lot of blocks and we had a very good defensive shape and it was a very good performance.”
“[Wagner]’s a guy who it’s embarrassing that he isn’t on the All-Star ballot, but at the same time is in those conversations for someone who has been playing at that level,” Curtin said. “I think you could say that for a lot of our guys that won’t get recognized with honors like that for a first-place team.”
Wagner has had to adjust to a different style of play in MLS from the German third tier, with the physicality of the league sticking out more than anything.
“It’s a higher level than the third level in Germany,” Wagner said. “It’s a different soccer and I think the mentality here is very different. Also, I think it’s a little bit more physical here. Soccer across the whole world is the same. You have to shoot at the goal and defend the goal. I think it was a big step for me, but I think I have done well.”
Wagner’s aggressive play has also drawn the attention of the MLS Disciplinary Committee. The left back was suspended an extra game for a red card picked up on April 20 and he has been fined twice for simulation/embellishment.
“I play my style the whole time and MLS thinks to fine me, I don’t understand it.” Wagner said. “I think the red card was correct. I know my mistakes, but I also don’t think long about it. I know I can play better than this and I will not do it again.”
“I don’t think long about the fines because I play my style and my style is to play hard, aggressive soccer forward and backward, and sometimes if you commit a foul, I don’t know if you have to get a fine, but I can’t do anything about it.”
After playing well enough to earn a victory on Sunday, Wagner and the Union hope that result translates to a strong performance versus the New York Red Bulls on Saturday at Talen Energy Stadium.
“When you win a game, it’s always better to get into the next game,” Wagner said. “I think every game is a new challenge. We have to shift our play to another type of style of soccer. It’s a new game for us. We are pushing now because everybody knows that the Red Bull game is important for us. It’s very important for us in the standings.”
In order for the season to be deemed a success, Wagner needs to keep up his form, which is something Curtin, a former defender, is quick to point out when discussing the success of his entire squad.
“Kai’s done a great job,” Curtin said. “He’s stepped up and done a great job. I’m really happy with where he’s at, but we also recognize it’s half a season. We need another half of the season and then we can really start to dissect and break it down.”