When JD Wagner joined the Philadelphia Union Academy four years ago, he imagined himself one day playing under the bright lights at Talen Energy Stadium.
He’ll fulfill that dream Friday night when the undefeated Navy Midshipmen come to Chester to take on the Army Black Knights in the eighth edition of the Army Navy Cup at 7:30 p.m.
“It should be really cool getting to play in the stadium where I used to watch a lot of Union games,” said Wagner, whose family had season tickets in the early days of the team when the Medford Lakes, N.J. native was playing for Real Jersey FC along with current first team midfielder Brenden Aaronson. “This isn’t the way that I probably planned on doing it but it’s pretty cool.”
Wagner was first recruited to go to the Naval Academy when he was playing for the Union U17s in a weekend of Generation adidas Cup qualifiers during his junior year of high school. Attending the Army Navy Cup that year played a part in his decision to commit — the game has regularly drawn between 8,000 and 10,000 since the first year in 2012 — but some advice from his father, Drew Wagner, a high school teacher and girls soccer coach at Shawnee High School, also came into play.
“Ever since I was little my dad used to tell me that his biggest regret in life was not serving his country so that always stuck with me,” JD said. “I knew from a young age that I wanted to serve, I wasn’t sure how I was going to do it or anything but I always had that in the back of my mind.”
When JD committed to the Naval Academy, the program was in the middle of its third straight losing season, but Wagner said he saw potential in the program. He and classmate Cole Turner both committed to the 2019 class but Turner ended up turning pro with Bethlehem Steel for remainder of this season and will join the Union roster next season.
“I could see how the soccer team was growing and definitely had potential for the future,” Wagner said.
After another losing season last year, the Midshipmen enter Friday’s game just one win away from matching the total win output (12) of the previous three seasons combined. They will accomplish that if they’re able to get a win over Army for what would be the first time since 2014.
A number of factors have contributed to the turn around under fourth year head coach Tim O’Donahue, but having a player like Wagner, who was able to step right into the starting lineup after his adjustment to life in Annapolis through the seven-week program known as “Plebe Summer,” certainly hasn’t hurt.
“He’s advanced because of the great experience he had with the Union and playing meaningful games,” O’Donahue said of his freshman outside back. “He’s played against good players and every day in training. He’s professional in the way he handles his business.”
Wagner was training with the Bethlehem Steel up until it came time to report to campus. Soccer then took a backseat for his crash course introduction to military life — with a liberal amount of yelling — that is the training regiment for new cadets.
“Things definitely got better when soccer started up,” Wagner said.
The balance of soccer, academics and additional responsibilities all cadets have in a service academy has gone well so far for Wagner, who learned a lot about time management and self-starting while at YSC Academy, the school many Union Academy players attend. Rattling off 11 wins to start the season — he’s started in all 11 games — has made life even better since first donning a Navy jersey. The Midshipmen rose to No. 19 in the most recent United Soccer Coaches poll.
“It’s just an awesome adrenaline in the locker room and I’m really excited to play on Friday; hopefully I get to start again,” Wagner said.