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Kai Wagner settling into new team and country as Philadelphia Union’s starting left back

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Wagner is new to Philadelphia and MLS, but his familiarity with the new Union formation has aided the transition

MLS: Toronto FC at Philadelphia Union Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

When Kai Wagner’s name first popped up as a potential target of an MLS team, it didn’t require too much sleuthing to come up with the Philadelphia Union as an obvious destination for the 22-year-old German left back.

Not many who follow the Union closely knew much about the Würzburger Kickers in the third tier of German football, much less Wagner, so when his signing was announced in early February the assumption for many was that he’d be a depth option for 19-year-old U.S. international Matt Real.

But being an option off the bench was never Wagner’s intention.

“For me it’s a great chance to play here, I’m also young and it’s a big step for me too,” Wagner said.

The Union paid an undisclosed transfer fee to acquire Wagner from a division in Germany Sporting Director Ernst Tanner said is a higher level overall than the USL Championship but a step below MLS.

Wagner’s experience playing in systems similar to the one Tanner has implemented — where outside backs are expected to be wingbacks going forward and fullbacks on the defensive half of the field — has aided in his transition to a new club and country.

“You have a lot of systems in Germany in each club, you play four or five systems per year and here you always play one style, one system,” Wagner said.

Wagner’s debut was shaky at times — his turnover in stoppage time led to Toronto’s third goal — but his first away trip with the team saw him turn in a man of the match worthy performance in the 2-0 loss to Sporting Kansas City. His work in the attack (he had a key pass, three crosses, a 92.1 passing percentage while drawing a couple fouls) and on the defensive end (he had five tackles, a pair of interceptions and a blocked shot) earned him the highest average rating so far this season from our community player rankings poll.

“Mistakes are in every game so you have to keep your head up,” Wagner said about the late goal in the season opener, noting that he was angry about it but put it out of his mind after watching it one last time on his laptop. “When I make mistakes I don’t think long about it. When you think too much about it then it’s a problem.”

Head coach Jim Curtin shared our readers’ assessment of Wagner in Kansas City when he said in his weekly press conference on Wednesday that he thought Kai “was one of our best players on the day.”

He’ll face another big road challenge against MLS Cup champions Atlanta United on Sunday, but through two games there’s reason to believe that having Wagner play as a natural left back in a position Ray Gaddis played most of last season can be a vast improvement over past struggles filling the position.

It’s also worth noting that Real, who played three games at left back in his first season on the first-team roster last year, had a strong season debut in Bethlehem Steel’s 2-0 win in Birmingham on Sunday. He’ll be heading out soon to join up with the United States U20 team in Spain and is still high on the list to make the U20 World Cup roster.

Their competition in training and the leadership they get from veteran Fabinho could in the long run be extremely beneficial for both players.

Wagner hasn’t had a lot of time to get to know his new surroundings, but he said one of the most noticeable differences he’s experienced so far is the number of fans in the stands. So far he’s played in front of an announced attendance of 16,498 in Chester and and a sellout crowd of 18,738 in Kansas. Both crowds were larger than the 13,000-seat stadium the Kickers call home.

“I have more fun because you always have more fans in the stadium and when you have more fans you are pushed more,” he said. “It’s a high level in MLS so I want to get better every game, every training.”

Sunday’s game at Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta will be more than double the size of the crowds he’s faced in his first two games. Both teams go into the game looking for their first win of the season; Atlanta is coming off a surprise draw with FC Cincinnati at home last week.

The Union come in still looking for their first goal from the run of play and will want to limit scoring chances for the Five Stripes. Wagner could be a key weapon in doing both of those things.

The game is scheduled to begin at 7:15 p.m. and will be broadcast live on PHL17.