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Kai Wagner looking to get back to winning ways Sunday against New York City FC

The German defender has been one of the Union’s most consistent performers on both sides of the ball, leading the team with 5 assists as well as helping hold opponents to a league-best 11 goals against

Jack Verdeur

Kai Wagner doesn’t like to lose. He doesn’t like ties either. The Philadelphia Union’s All-Star left back has had a tremendous start to the 2022 season, arguably the best of his career, but he’s not satisfied with the recent string of results.

“It feels weird,” Wagner told the Brotherly Game after training this week about the recent run of ties. “It’s disappointing for me because I’m a guy who wants to win every game in training, every game, every week.”

The German defender has been one of the Union’s most consistent performers on both sides of the ball, leading the team with 5 assists as well as helping hold opponents to a league-best 11 goals against.

“We all know that we can do way better. We have to do better, especially at home. On the road, we got some good results but at home we missed the small things to finish games off and that’s a big problem.”

The Union are 3-0-5 at home this season, and although an unbeaten streak still makes them formidable at Subaru Park, it’s been the nature of the latest home ties that have felt like missed opportunities. A scoreless draw to Inter Miami, a convincing performance against the New York Red Bulls, and the latest winnable tie against FC Cincinnati all shared common themes. The Union either gave up leads and/or missed multiple opportunities to put the game away late to earn three points.

In last Saturday’s draw against FC Cincinnati, the Union were once again out-possessed but couldn’t establish their typical high pressure or counter style, which left Wagner working harder on the defensive side of the ball. “For me it’s sometimes hard if I get straight pressure from a defender and don’t have options to go forward to get into the attack.”

Wagner saw a familiar face on the opposite side when he matched up against Ray Gaddis, who was able to advance farther up the field with extended Cincinnati possession. “But I still have my moments to get a cross in or create a dangerous chance, and we just have to finish them off. Sometimes it’s enough to just have one cross a game, and we finish this one we score one more goal than the other team.”

Against New York City FC, the Union will face a team that’s been rolling as of late. Equally stout defensively, NYCFC is unbeaten over their last 9 games (7-0-2) and sits on top of the Eastern Conference Standings with 27 points and a game in hand. Whereas the Union struggled in transitions against Cincinnati, they will need to return to their bread and butter against the league’s most in-form side.

“The biggest problem at the moment is we don’t get pressure from our forwards,” Wagner said. “That was the thing last year when we did create, win early balls to get a fast ball in the box and score early goals. I think we just missed this.”

The Union rank fourth in MLS in attacking-third pressures, but against Cincinnati, their 22 attacking-third pressures was their lowest total of the season and well below their 44.6 per game average.

Also concerning for Wagner has been the way his team has given up leads. “We score almost every game the first goal but then we always have a drop off and I don’t know why that is. But we have to overthink it, to watch film and just get better and try to win the balls earlier and get faster in transitions. If you build from the back, we just have to find better spaces, more movement. We can’t have every game eight or nine chances, we have to finish our first two chances and then the game opens up a little more for us.”

In 15 games this season, the Union have scored first 11 times but have conceded second-half goals in 6 of the last 9 (1-1-7) games. In previous wins against NYCFC, Charlotte, and Portland, however, they were able to score a second goal without conceding. In March, the Union won 2- 0 against NYCFC at Yankee Stadium by scoring two first half goals, something they’ve struggled to do in recent games. Wagner’s free kick over the back of the defense led to Alejandro Bedoya’s opener, and the Union were fortunate when Jack Elliott conceded a penalty and was sent off, only for the play to be overturned by a prior Santiago Rodriguez handball. Minutes later, the Union scored the second goal and never looked back.

Wagner will certainly see a potent New York offense led by Taty Castellanos and Maxi Moralez and will likely get his share of either Rodriguez or Talles Magno on the outside, which could prevent him from joining the attack again, something that doesn’t bother him. “It’s not about just getting forward. I think everybody expects me to go forward but a lot of people miss the thing that I like, the first thing for me is always defending, to not let up goals.”

Wagner’s intensity and physicality have easily made him a fan favorite ever since he arrived from Würzburger Kickers in 2019, and his consistent defensive performances have kept the Union among the league’s best at preventing goals over the past three seasons.

As a dynamic outside back who can get up and down the wing, when asked if the lack of possession sometimes affects his opportunities to move forward Wagner said,

“Of course. We have problems with patience at the moment. We lose too many easy balls right now where we must try to force it to go forward. Maybe we just have to step on the ball or hold the ball a little bit, especially at home. We can’t have that less possession like we had against Cincinnati. Everybody knows it.”

Cincinnati held a 55%-45% advantage in possession, and the Union have lost the possession battle in 7 of their last 8 games, which doesn’t change the way they like to play but does influence Wagner’s positioning and energy expenditure on the outside. NYCFC have held possessional advantages in every game this season except the opener against the LA Galaxy. In the prior meeting with the Union, NYCFC held the ball 73% of the time.

“Against New York City, it will be a completely different game. Our pressing has to be perfect against them because we know they can easily get out of space. They are a better team than Cincinnati and we just have to get prepared for it.”

The MLS All-Star voting opened last week, and Wagner was one the Union’s two representatives in last year’s game against the All-Stars from Liga MX. His 5 assists and 3.1 expected assists are among the best in the league and the highest for a defender. Wagner also leads the league with 45 blocks, and his 31 intercepted passes ranks near the top. As one of the key players on a defense that gives up the fewest goals and has earned the second-most clean sheets, he’s likely considered the frontrunner for a spot, something he’s looking forward to again.

“This season’s probably my best season I’ve had in Philadelphia,” he said when asked about his chances. “I’m in really good shape and probably can say I’m the best left back in the league. It’s a push for me to get in there. I don’t know how the fans are voting or the media, but I should be in there. Of course it’s my goal to win, too.”

The main priority for Wagner is winning, starting this Sunday.

“We haven’t lost for eight games now, but it feels also like we haven’t won forever,” he said.

And with a nationally televised game, another opportunity awaits for him and his Union teammates to showcase their quality against the defending MLS Cup champions.

“It’s a big game where we can get back to winning ways and prove that we’re still a top team.”