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Delivery man Kai Wagner leading the Philadelphia Union in assists

How the German left back supplies the Union attack

Shivant Krishnan

A little over halfway through the MLS season, Kai Wagner has proven that he’s one of the most dangerous chance creators in the league. With his corner kick delivery on Mikael Uhre’s header against New England last weekend, he earned his 10th assist of the season, tying him for second in the league with Lucho Acosta. (The Revs’ Carles Gil is first with 11).

Plus, he’s the only defender in that upper echelon—Whitecaps wingback Julian Gressel is next highest with 7. Major League Soccer’s assist statistic includes secondary assists, but they don’t provide any breakdown, so it takes a bit of math to figure out how many each player has. Fbref only tallies primary assists, and according to their data, Wagner has 5 (league leaders Carlos Vela, Santiago Rodriguez, and Diego Fagundez each have 7). By subtracting the fbref numbers from the MLS total assists, we can find the league leaders in secondary assists.

MLS Assist Leaders - As of July 20, 2022

Player Total Primary Secondary
Player Total Primary Secondary
Carles Gil 11 6 5
Kai Wagner 10 5 5
Luciano Acosta 10 6 4
Xherdan Shaquiri 7 3 4
Joaquin Torres 5 1 4
Lucas Zelarayan 9 5 4
Mauricio Pereyra 9 6 3
Julian Gressel 7 4 3
Yimmi Chara 6 3 3

And at the top we find…Kai Wagner. He’s first in the league with 5 secondary assists, tied with Carles Gil. So what exactly is the Philadelphia Union left back doing that puts him in the mix with some of the league’s best playmakers?

Unsurprisingly, his left-foot is elite. I rewatched each of his assists from this season, and they share key features. His primary assists all showcase his exceptional delivery—they’re usually off a dead ball, and Wagner finds a Union attacker for a header.

But his secondary assists also show how aggressively Union players attack the box. On March 5 against Montreal, he played a cross over the defense to Julian Carranza in the box, who squared the ball to an onrushing Daniel Gazdag, who scored. On March 19 against NYCFC, he delivered a set piece ball to Carranza in the box, who couldn’t make a shot himself, but deflected the ball to an onrushing Alejandro

Bedoya, who scored. On April 2 against Charlotte, Wagner played a long ball to Sergio Santos who cut across to an onrushing Carranza, who scored. Wagner is the spark, and when the Union are firing on all cylinders, everyone else follows. He gets the ball into areas where a Union attacker can either take a shot himself or pass to a late-arriving teammate.

The stats bear out how valuable Wagner’s deliveries are: he produces 3.04 shot-creating actions per 90 minutes (97th percentile among MLS fullbacks) and 0.18 expected assists per 90 (91st percentile).

All of which begs the question: What do the Union do if Kai Wagner is sold? He’s one of the best left backs in MLS; he’s certainly ready to go back to Europe. But he’s assisted on nearly a third of the Union’s total goals for the season. How do they replace that creativity?

Saturday’s win against New England had two Wagneresque deliveries: the corner kick leading to the Uhre header and a dangerous cross into the box that Bedoya headed down to Gazdag, who was pushed over by a Revs defender for a penalty.

But only one of those was from Wagner. The cross that led to the penalty came from Jack McGlynn. Coming off his two-goal performance in the Concacaf U20 Championship, the 19-year-old homegrown took on the role of deep-lying playmaker in the Union’s starting XI and showed the same kind of vision he demonstrated with the U20s. He completed 95% of his 57 passes, was three for four on long balls, and created two chances. With the U20s, he also showed that he can play as a right-sided midfielder, even though he usually plays on the left side of the 4-4-2 diamond for the Union, so he has some versatility.

If a smart European club does snap up Wagner, it’s a significant loss, but not an emergency. With McGlynn’s creativity, he should be able to step up and fill the gap from his position in midfield. But if Wagner stays and McGlynn continues to improve, the Union attack could reach new heights.

Thanks to Jonathan Piech for research assistance. Data from Major League Soccer and fbref.