CHESTER, Pa. — Before Philadelphia Union left back Kai Wagner took the field on Saturday, he was in the discussion as the best left back in Major League Soccer.
After 90 minutes limiting Carlos Vela’s production, the 22-year-old added to a resume that grows by the week and continues to impress head coach Jim Curtin.
“I thought Kai was incredible on the night in terms of forward defending, being physical with (Vela) at the right moments, not going in when he cuts the ball,” Curtin said.
“When (Vela) gets you in the box, you’re always holding your breath because he can draw penalties just because he is so deceptive in there,” Curtin said. “Kai showed that he is a top left back in the league. For my money, the top left back.”
Wagner prepared for the toughest individual battle of his season by doing as much research as he could on the Golden Boot leader.
The main takeaway was to force the Mexican forward on to his right foot, something Wagner knows firsthand as a left-footer that can be frustrating.
“I think everybody knows that Vela is the best player in the league, everybody knows his strength is his left foot,” Wagner said. “I just tried to get him on his right foot as much as possible. I think in the first half, I did really well. He did not have many opportunities. He was a bit frustrated because I got him sometimes a little bit hard, but fair. I think at the end he was a little bit frustrated. In the second half, I think I lost him just one time.”
“I looked at a lot of videos of him this week,” Wagner said. “I saw what his skills are and what he likes to do. Everybody knows that he has a brilliant left foot. I just followed him to his right foot. I’m also left-footed so I also don’t like it when I go to my right foot. I think when you don’t have too much space, it’s a big advantage for me and for the whole team.”
Wagner annoyed the Most Valuable Player front-runner so much in the first half that Vela slid over to the other side of the field in an attempt to create chances.
“My biggest respect to (Wagner) today,” Union forward Kacper Przybylko said. “He stopped Carlos Vela. He didn’t want to go 1v1 against this guy. I think he was a little bit pissed off because he had no chance against Kai today. He made it so great and I’m so happy for him.”
The left back totaled three tackles and two interceptions while holding Vela to 39 touches, one key pass and a single shot on target.
The goal Vela scored in the 44th minute came off a rebound and he finished at the left post, which was out of Wagner’s range.
There was no way for Wagner to replicate Vela’s skill set in practice, but going against Ilsinho in training every day helped him deal with a player with high quality.
“Ilsinho is a good example for this because he has quick feet and can do everything with the ball,” Wagner said. “I think Carlos Vela is a different player because he is left-footed and he doesn’t like to dribble very much. He likes to lay it off. It’s good to play against (Ilsinho) in the training sessions, but in the games, it’s different.”
Thanks to the improved form of Wagner, who leads MLS defenders in assists with eight, the Union have conceded once in each of their last three games. That is a massive improvement from the pair of four-goal concessions to Real Salt Lake and Montreal in July.
“I think (the defense) did a very good job,” Union midfielder Haris Medunjanin said. “I think they are playing with more confidence right now. When you play with confidence, you can play against anybody. I think they did a very good job as a team. We were not scared.”
“We know that defenders were very good in the last games,” Wagner said. “I think the defense did very well, but the offensive line defended very well too. I think it’s the whole team that defended very well. I think for us it’s a good game today. We just have to keep going and do it in the next game (against New York Red Bulls) also.”