It wasn’t the first time Nick Hagglund had won a Supporters’ Shield. It wasn’t even the first time he had won a Supporters’ Shield in Toronto at BMO Field. But it was the first time he celebrated winning a Shield, regardless of venue, squad or date.
In 2017, exactly six years to the day, after four seasons with Toronto FC and having already taken a trip to the MLS Cup Finals in 2016, Hagglund and The Reds won their first Supporters’ Shield. But there was no celebration. The bottles of champagne arranged in a ‘TFC’ shape remained corked and the players who won the trophy moved about the locker room in their regular ways, showering, changing, doing regular media requirements before departing for the evening. Not a drop was spilled.
It was a different team, in a different time. Hagglund played an important role on that club, having scored a vital goal in the second leg of the 2016 MLS Eastern Conference Final for TFC, but he was also not the player he is now. He describes that environment as so locked in on MLS Cup, because of the loss they took there the year before, that they weren't able to celebrate what they had already achieved.
Exactly six years later, an older, wiser, perhaps more weathered, but still an owner of a boyish charm, Hagglund had no doubts about how FC Cincinnati would embrace their moment with fans.
“A lot of emotions go into this, but ultimately, (I am) just really proud and happy to be able to give this city and the fans something to be really excited and proud of,” the Cincinnati native said. “After what the club endured the first three seasons, and how awesome the fans were every game coming out, even when we weren't winning, to be able to give them something just made me extremely happy.
“To see all those faces coming off the bus. To see them stick through and to continue to support … I'm just really happy to give them something that they enjoy.”
Hagglund was a star in the aftermath of the club clinching their first MLS silverware. He was one of the first in the locker room to welcome teammates, the first to bust a move in the team dance circle, and with a mob of fans waiting to celebrate with him back in Cincinnati, the first off the bus to leap into supporters’ arms upon arrival at CVG airport.
It was not the first time FC Cincinnati supporters gathered at an airport to welcome home The Orange and Blue. They had done so last season when FCC clinched a playoff berth in Washington, D.C. and again after their first playoff win over New York Red Bulls. But this time it was different, more tangible. The arrival at CVG allowed for a more in person greeting, whereas Lunken (where the club arrived in the previous two gatherings) has a barbed wire fence separating fans from players. This time, fans were encouraged by security to stay back and give space to players to greet their family members and leave should they want to. After all, it was 1:29 a.m.
No one told Hagglund this. As he raced off the bus and into the arms of his fellow Cincinnatians, rendering the security warnings moot.
“It was nice to be able to be with everyone. And it felt just, you know, it was just an awesome experience,” Hagglund said. “It just felt like a roller coaster of emotions from where we were at the beginning and to where we are now. I just wanted to celebrate that with the fans, with my teammates and just soak this up because it doesn't come around all the time.”
The lessons Hagglund learned about cherishing big moments come from his time with Toronto FC and the experiences he gained while helping to build the culture that FC Cincinnati have now. The celebration is in no way an indication of feeling settled with just a Supporters’ Shield; he and his teammates have major goals they hope to achieve that end in lifting a MLS Cup trophy as well. But realizing the gravity of the moment made it imperative to celebrate this one.
“I was in Toronto and in my third season, we went to MLS Cup; fourth season, we won the Supporters’ Shield and went to MLS Cup. It kind of felt like this was a thing that was gonna always happen,” Hagglund remembered.
“Then I came to Cincinnati and had a tough going for a while, and I think it was just a reminder that every year is a little bit different. But the moments that you have, it's not often that you get a team that you get to win Supporters’ Shield with. You're not going to have the same locker room all the time, year to year things change. So when you have these kinds of moments, you need to celebrate them.”
The Cincinnati native and Xavier University alum has been a core part of the club’s history dating back to FCC’s opening game in MLS when he was traded from Toronto FC for $200,000 in GAM, $100,000 in TAM and a number one allocation spot. At the time, the deal was universally panned by pundits and critics, calling it an overpay on the part of FCC to get a sentimental player.
But the decision to bring in Hagglund was made to not only help the team win games, but to establish a hometown culture with the club and help the roster connect with the city of Cincinnati.
“During that time, our soccer leadership really coveted Hagglund as a center back who could really help us in a lot of ways,” FC Cincinnati Co-CEO Jeff Berding said in an exclusive interview with FCCincinnati.com. “I liked the idea because he was Cincinnati. He was a Cincinnati Kid and we were building culture. In the USL, those players embraced the city and I knew it may be a little bit harder to do that in MLS, so having someone in the locker room from Cincinnati who could help build a family-friendly and inclusive community was key.
“Nick was critical even though we weren't winning. Community, family, those were important values and he certainly gave everything he had within the locker room to try to keep it going as best he could, in a situation where we just weren't good enough.”
Hagglund stuck out the process with FC Cincinnati through three seasons of last place finishes, three head coaches, two interim head coaches over three stints and two full-scale leadership changes. He stuck it out regardless, with a clear vision and desire to be in Cincinnati and make this work.
“There were opportunities to potentially go somewhere else,” Hagglund told FCCincinnati.com after lifting the shield at TQL Stadium. “I took a lesser deal to stay because I knew that something like this could happen, and I wanted to be a part of it.”
When FC Cincinnati general manager Chris Albright took over the club in October of 2021, it was not initially clear how Hagglund would factor into the rebuild that Albright would undertake. It would not have been unreasonable to completely refresh the roster. Tear it down, so to speak, and start again from scratch. But Hagglund understood how to win and how to build culture.
“Within five minutes (of meeting Hagglund) I'm like, ‘Well, he's gonna be here,’ because he just got it,” Albright said about his initial introduction to Hagglund. “He was hungry for something different and was kind of desperate to be like, ‘Hey, man, if this is going to be the change that gets us moving in the right direction, please let me be part of it.’
“All the stuff he does behind the scenes by literally just being himself, being a good human being and a good teammate has been really important.”
Albright relates the situation, and his appreciation of Hagglund’s role in the FCC rebuild, to a conversation he had with Arsenal star and former New York City FC manager (among other things) Patrick Vieira. Albright tells the story of sitting down with the French footballer with a group of other Arsenal fans who asked “What's the key to bringing Arsenal back to glory?”
“His answer was matter of fact: it's the English players,” Albright remembers. “He said those English players that were part of the group allowed him and Thierry (Henry) and Dennis (Bergkamp), and all those guys, to flourish. They understand the cultural norms of the country and they understand what the travel looks like. So it's very similar in MLS; those American players really make up a lot of your cultural being. They just understand the cultural norms and are able to translate that to guys that are coming in from all different places. So a lot of those guys can just be talented and flourish, and have success, and so Nick is emblematic of that kind of idea that there needs to be those guys in the locker room.”
In this instance, Hagglund is the cultural baseline to the locker room, an attaché for the city of Cincinnati. By all accounts, by just being the person he is, Hagglund helps to set the tone for the group and establish a welcoming standard of commitment and passion for the organization.
“Going back to when I became the head coach, and my conversations with Chris (Albright) about piecing things together and who was going to be an important part of this, that was prior to knowing Nick and how important he was to this club. Chris kind of made me aware of that,” FC Cincinnati head coach Pat Noonan said of his initial discussions about Hagglund. “I met Nick and just talked about the desire to keep him as part of this project. To see his commitment to the group, and not only the commitment, but his performances and what he's meant to us on the field, because we know what it looks like off the field, there's few better. He's been outstanding.
“It meant a lot to him after (winning the Shield). He is the biggest supporter of his teammates and has played such an important role in this team's success. So it was nice to see how much it meant to him to have gone through the struggle and then experience the team's first trophy.”
The criticism the club received over his acquisition had stuck with Hagglund. It hurt him. Now, on the other end of the story with FC Cincinnati, with a trophy raised and his contributions essential to the success of the team, it has made the moment even sweeter.
“To bring a championship to the city, to this club, it's a dream come true,” Hagglund said. “It's special getting to play for your hometown club. It's really special to get the lift to the championship for that club, especially one where we saw some dark times together, where this moment fell far. At times, it felt very far from being possible to now being able to lift it is really special, just proud to be a part of it.
“I love this city. It’s where I was born. This is where I grew up. Championships are hard to come by and to be able to do that feels really special to me. … When I got here, people were saying that it was the worst trade ever in MLS history, and I wanted to prove them wrong. It felt like three years of not being able to do that, so to be able to play a lot of games for this team the past two years, and play important games, and be able to prove people wrong, feels special to me.”
Nick Hagglund embodies the characteristics of leadership and the culture that Albright, Noonan and Berding were looking to create. He goes about his business professionally. He’s accountable for himself on the pitch and stands up for the club off of it. For years when things were at their worst, Hagglund would step to the mic for media availability to answer for things he did not control. He would go to community events, and serve his club and city with a smile. When he is not selected for duty on the field, he is his teammates’ biggest cheerleader and advocate.
The greatest compliment one can pay to Hagglund is that by virtue of him being so comfortable in his own skin, he makes others comfortable to be themselves, an essential ingredient in a locker room full of individuals with their own flair.
Hagglund is All For Cincy. FC Cincinnati is All For Hagglund. Neither could be where they are today without the other. And the people of Cincinnati are the greatest beneficiaries of that.