WILMINGTON, Del. — Philadelphia Union left back Kai Wagner was the model signing for the new regime under sporting director Ernst Tanner.
A year ago, he was brought on from the third division in Germany to be the club’s starting left back.
Although the move was met with skepticism because of his previous club, Wagner turned doubters into believers fast in what some analysts believed was a Best XI-caliber season.
“I think the first year here was very good for me, but I know that I can do much more,” Wagner told Pro Soccer USA at Union training Wednesday. “I just want to work hard in every game and every training and push myself to be a very good player.”
Wagner’s success has alleviated some concerns about the parts of world in which Tanner has picked players to be contributors.
In the last month, the Union signed Jose Martinez from Venezuelan side Zulia FC and Matej Oravec from DAC Dunajska Streda in Slovakia to fill the No. 6 defensive midfield role.
Oravec has already started training with the club at the Philadelphia 76ers Fieldhouse in Wilmington, Delaware, while Martinez is completing visa paperwork in South America.
Wagner understands the adjustment process they will have to go through, and he is more than willing to help in that regard with both new arrivals.
“I think the guys who are here have to help those guys,” Wagner said. “Matej from Slovakia, we have to help him with the new language, new style of the league, but it was also hard for me last year to step in.”
“We are a small family within the club so we all have to help each other to get better,” Wagner added. “I think the biggest problem from the start is the language. When you want to learn the language and just fit in very quickly, it’s always better to play in this league and it’s better for the guys.”
From a defensive standpoint, Oravec and Martinez are expected to help the Union drop their goals against total from 50 in 2019.
That preparation starts with a more competitive preseason schedule in Florida, which begins Jan. 29 against Atlanta United.
Instead of facing college sides or USL Championship squads, like they have in recent years, the Union will take on seven Major League Soccer clubs in preseason.
“I think it’s very important. You saw last year we had some games against teams from lower leagues in which our performance was not so good,” Wagner said. “We have some friendly games against teams that are in the same league as us. We have to prepare hard every training.
‘Everybody has to push each other and don’t think about the next game, think about every training session and then the games and you don’t have to put too much pressure on ourselves.”
While the defensive midfield additions are expected to help the defensive production, the onus is also on Wagner, Jack Elliott, Mark McKenzie and Ray Gaddis to improve their chemistry from last season to alleviate pressure on goalkeeper Andre Blake.
“I think we all know that last year we had too many goals against us, but this year we have the same back four as last year,” Wagner said. “I think Mark McKenzie did a great job last year when he stepped in. We all know that we have to be better this year and have more success and get higher this season. We know we can score in most games, so defense has to be the first thing for us.”
Wagner’s individual goal is to become a better player for the Union in 2020, but the 22-year-old also has a small eye on the future and potential return to Europe that could turn his current club a profit, if it gets to that point.
“I don’t think so now, but maybe later, go to a higher league that is big in Europe, but this year is just for Philly and I want to play like last year and have the same success from last year,” Wagner said. “I just want to get better every day in training. I just have to keep going.”