But Jim Curtin knows that’s no guarantee as the 2023 season approaches, the reigning Sigi Schmid MLS Coach of the Year said when addressing transfer interest around the 25-year-old defender.
“I'll continue to say I believe Kai can play anywhere,” Curtin said Thursday in his first official press conference of the year. “I'm not going to sit here and tell you he should be a starter on the top teams in the Premier League or the top teams in the Bundesliga. But the middle to bottom, I think he can play in any of those teams.”
Transfer speculation has followed Wagner the last several windows, though a move back to Europe hasn’t yet materialized for a player Philadelphia initially acquired in 2019 from Germany’s 3. Liga (third division). Now, reporting suggests this winter is when Wagner may indeed leave the club. He's currently under contract through 2023.
“As a coach, he certainly is valuable to us here in Philadelphia and he wants to win trophies here,” Curtin said. “Hopefully a good solution comes up for both sides and we can figure things out there.”
Wagner is coming off a 2022 season where his 15 assists were the second-most in MLS and most by a defender in league history. The two-time All-Star finished second in MLS Defender of the Year voting to his teammate Jakob Glesnes and placed on the MLS Best XI presented by Continental Tire.
Should Wagner depart, he would be Philadelphia’s second outgoing move from a squad that in 2022 lost MLS Cup in penalty kicks and the Supporters’ Shield on the most-wins tiebreaker – both to LAFC. This offseason, they also transferred homegrown midfielder and US youth international standout Paxten Aaronson to Bundesliga side Eintracht Frankfurt.
Timing is the part that’s difficult to pinpoint, Curtin said, with any inbound or outbound moves.
“It's always fluid,” Curtin said. “As you guys know, the transfer market and agents and all the different things that go into it – all of a sudden agents promise players they're going to get their player to X club in the top league in the top country. Then reality sets in and the scramble happens at the end. So it's very fluid. Things will always be changing.”
The Wagner discussions underpin a broader theme around the Union: the Eastern Conference champions, who enjoyed dominant stretches last year and nearly swept year-end awards, have retained almost their entire core roster.
Aside from Aaronson, the only key departure thus far is backup striker Cory Burke in free agency to the New York Red Bulls. They’ll be looking internally and externally to replace him and add forward depth behind Julian Carranza and Mikael Uhre, two of the club’s three Designated Players.
“The loss of Cory is a real one,” Curtin said. “He's a guy who can score double digits in our league and has done it before. That's tough to replace. Goals are hard to replace and we'll certainly be searching.
“Can now, though, maybe a Quinn Sullivan step in and take some of that goalscoring load, whether it be as a 10 or as a second striker, whatever that might be? I think that's a reality too; the way he's playing in practice already has been impressive.”
Another transfer search, Curtin said, is around a fourth center back. Philadelphia have arguably the league’s top CB pairing in Glesnes and Jack Elliott, plus homegrown/US youth international standout Brandan Craig is coming through. But for a club that’s going to compete in 50-plus games this year across the league, Leagues Cup, US Open Cup and Concacaf Champions League – they want more proven options.
“In this league, you need to have at least four good ones,” Curtin said. “We're looking in that regard as well, a position that is critical to our success because we are brave and play a high backline. I'll say it: Center backs, in our league and in the world right now, are hard to find and they're important. We'll always look to improve, but I really like the group that we have here together now.”
Gazdag's new deal
On the transfer front, Philadelphia’s other news involves trading for once-capped US international midfielder Andres Perea from Orlando City SC in December. They also bumped midfielder Dániel Gazdag up to DP status, giving them a full allotment/trio heading into their Matchday 1 home clash vs. the Columbus Crew (7:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass).
But keeping Gazdag around for a third season wasn’t easy, Curtin said.
“A lot of clubs wanted him in Europe,” Curtin said. “After you have a season like Daniel had, not just with us but with his national team in Hungary, a lot of big clubs came knocking on Ernst [Tanner]'s door and calling him and wanting Daniel's services.”
The 26-year-old provided an astounding 22 goals and 10 assists in 34 matches last season, then another two goals in their Audi MLS Cup Playoffs run. Replicating that will prove difficult, but the new contract is a deserved reward for Gazdag considering his impact since a May 2021 arrival from Hungarian side Honved.
“I told him maybe if he dyes his hair, maybe gets a mohawk, more of the press and media will notice how good he is and maybe we talk about him – which he should've been in in the first place – with the MVPs,” Curtin joked. “… He's a big part of our success, not just with the ball but against the ball as well.”
Comings and goings aside, Philadelphia’s chief aim is adding more silverware. They took home the 2020 Supporters’ Shield, and have gradually improved with each passing season. Now comes a possible payoff.
“If you look at our body of work over the last five seasons, I think we've taken a step forward,” Curtin said. “We've guarded against the big letdowns that maybe other teams have had, but this will be no different.
“We'll have to be on our toes, we'll have to be at our max because I don't think we're sneaking up on anybody anymore. There's no element of surprise when you play the Philadelphia Union. They know how we're going to play, they know what we're about.”