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TORONTO — A fan favourite during his days with Toronto FC, defender Nick Hagglund returns to BMO Field on Saturday with FC Cincinnati.
Traded to expansion Cincinnati in January 2019 after five seasons with Toronto, Hagglund now ranks as Cincinnati's leader in minutes played (4,699 in the regular season) and all-time appearances (63). He ranks second in starts (51).
And while he has been on the bench in Toronto since leaving, the 29-year-old Cincinnati native has yet to play for the visiting team at BMO Field.
"It's always good coming back to Toronto," Hagglund said. "Walking the old stomping grounds a little bit, seeing fun faces from back in the day.
"It still feels like yesterday that I was at Toronto. I only have wonderful memories of the city, the club."
Toronto sent Hagglund and the No. 24 allocation ranking — which MLS teams essentially use as the pecking order to reacquire U.S. internationals or former MLS players returning to the league — to expansion Cincinnati in exchange for US$200,000 in general allocation money, $100,000 in targeted allocation money and the No. 1 allocation ranking.
Now in its fourth season, FC Cincinnati has travelled a bumpy MLS road. Pat Noonan is the fifth Cincinnati coach Hagglund has played under, following Alan Koch, Yoann Damet, Ron Jans and Jaap Stam.
Cincinnati, which is 2-4-0 all-time against Toronto, has a career regular-season record of 16-64-19.
It has just three wins in its last 33 league outings (3-22-8) dating back to the start of July 2021. One of those victories was a 2-0 decision over Toronto last September.
Cincinnati (2-5-1 this season) is winless in its last four league games (0-3-1), but two of those losses — against CF Montreal and Los Angeles FC — were by one goal and it did beat the Pittsburgh Riverhounds 2-0 in U.S. Open Cup play during that run.
It can also take some solace from keeping it tight against league-leading LAFC last weekend, despite a lengthy injury list, before falling victim to a 79th-minute Danny Musovski goal.
"They're an improved team … I've seen that on a number of days this season," said Toronto coach Bob Bradley.
Hagglund also sees positives under Noonan, a former Philadelphia Union assistant coach who was put in charge of Cincinnati in December.
"I feel like the team's moving in the right direction … I think (Noonan) has brought a big change in culture and belief in the group, no matter who's playing," Hagglund said.
Ray Gaddis and Ronald Matarrita are unavailable for Cincinnati this week with Tyler Blackett, Allan Cruz, Alec Kann, Yuya Kubo and Brandon Vazquez listed as questionable.
In the absence of Kann, rookie Roman Celentano made his first MLS start in goal last week against LAFC. The 21-year-old from Indiana University, the No. 2 overall selection in the 2022 MLS SuperDraft, made six saves — tied for fifth-most in a game in club history.
Toronto is missing Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty and Noble Okello. Deandre Kerr (concussion protocol) and Ralph Priso and Jacob Shaffelburg (both lower body) are listed as questionable.
Bradley said forward Ayo Akinola, who has dressed the last two games but not seen action, looked good in training this week, which may bode well for his first minutes since undergoing knee surgery last August.
Toronto is coming off a 5-4 loss to New York City in a wild game at Citi Field that saw TFC pull ahead 2-0 only to concede the next five goals. The defeat snapped Toronto's four-game unbeaten streak (3-0-1)
Still, Noonan is impressed by what he has seen of TFC this year.
"You can see our opponent continues to improve each week," he said. "Maybe not with the result in their most recent (game) but with their ideas with and without the ball, they continue to grow and improve. We're prepared for a team that can get after the ball defensively in ways that can make you uncomfortable.
"So how do we find solutions to being able to deal with the pressure moments? And then with the ball, a team that has the quality to move the ball quickly. They can beat you through the middle, they can beat you in wider areas if they're playing with the wing backs. It presents a good test for us."
Hagglund has started six regular-season games for Cincinnati this season, missing out on the LAFC matchup after receiving two yellow cards in a 0-0 draw at Atlanta United on April 16.
Saturday's game is the opener of a rare back-to-back series. The teams meet again next Wednesday at TQL Stadium, a 26,000-capacity venue that opened in spring 2021.
There were just two back-to-back series In 2021, with Inter Miami CF and D.C. United meeting May 29 and June 19, and the New York Red Bulls facing NYCFC on Sept. 22 and Sept. 25
Bradley is no fan of such. "It's not ideal," he said.
Hagglund is more positive.
"It's like Champions League … (a) two-legged event," he said enthusiastically.
Wednesday's return match is billed as Star Wars Night with FC Cincinnati encouraging fans to dress up as their favourite Star Wars characters. The club says light sabres are allowed "but subject to removal if used improperly."
Hagglund, a Star Wars fan, is looking forward to it, given the fervour of the Cincinnati fans.
"People are buzzing for soccer in this city. The stadium is loud. The field and stadium, in general, are just incredible," he said.
Cincinnati unveiled Obinna Nwobodo, its new designated player, this week. The Nigerian midfielder arrives from Turkey's Goztepe SK.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 29, 2022.
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press