After kicking around in the lower divisions of German football, Kai Wagner decided it was time for something new.
Spells at SSV Ulm 1846, Schalke II and Wūrzburger Kickers had been good for his development, but the opportunity to head over the Atlantic to join MLS outfit Philadelphia Union was one he couldn’t pass up.
After all, Wagner had always harboured ambitions of playing abroad. Now, he’s regarded as one of the most promising full-backs in MLS, after contributing eight assists in his debut season with Philadelphia Union, who topped the Eastern Conference during 2019/20.
Wagner’s rise through the ranks hasn’t been easy though, something he’s now opened up about in an
exclusive interview with 90min in France.
“I joined Ulm in Under-12 where I played for all the young categories,” Wagner begins. “After seven years at the club, I tried my luck in a Bundesliga Under-19 team in Augsburg. I only stayed half a season because it was complicated for me between injuries and being so far away from my family.
“I then returned to Ulm to play with the seniors. They were planning to move up to the fourth division, promising me a key role.”
It was there that Wagner caught the eye of Bundesliga giants Schalke 04, a move that understandably appealed to the then 20-year-old. But he explains that although he enjoyed his solitary season playing for their reserves, he was convinced to drop down a couple of divisions and join Wūrzburger by a former coach.
“Schalke, it was a dream opportunity back then for a player my age. I just played with the reserve and we had a tough season but had a good season. From there, Wüzburger got interested in me because their coach was the former coach of the Under-18 Schalke. He convinced me to join him.
“The beginnings were complicated, I struggled to impose myself. Then a new coach arrived and I showed that I was the best left-back in the club. After that, I have always been a starter.”
After two seasons in the third tier of German football, Wagner wanted to test himself on a bigger stage. Contract negotiations stalled and interest from Bundesliga.2 surfaced, but the opportunity to join Philadelphia stood out most.
“With the club, we had disputes over the renewal of my contract. I wanted to play at a better level but they wanted to keep me. I had opportunities to sign in Bundesliga.2 but these clubs did not convince me. From then on, I started talking with American clubs.
“Philadelphia was immediately interested in me, especially the sports director [Ernst Tanner] who is German and who knew my profile well. Our exchanges went very well. They wanted to build a team that matches my style. The contract came in and it seemed obvious to me. It has always been a dream to play in a foreign league.”
Wagner’s confidence in his own ability and success with Philadelphia has led to speculation that a return to Europe could be on the horizon, and he’s open about a trip back across the ocean being in his future plans.
“I have a very good left foot and I know that it is a rare commodity in football. I am a defender. projecting forward and aggressive on the carrier. I like to participate in the game and deliver as many crosses as possible.
“From the start of the season, I had in mind to win MLS this season. In my opinion, we have the best team. We are undefeated at home this season, and we’re going to play all of our play-offs at home. That’s a huge advantage.
“Going to the United States is the best decision of my career so far. Now I see MLS as the perfect step for me to progress. My mindset is that nothing can stop me. If I stay fit I can be one of the best. That’s my goal. I want to be one of the best in the world at my job.
“I don’t just want to prove my worth to others, but to prove myself to myself. So far, I’m coming off two very good seasons in MLS. I’m on the right track. My goal is to become the best possible and for that, we have to evolve in Europe.”
Wagner has tentatively been linked with Fulham and West Ham, but he admits that he’s long been a fan of Ligue 1 and Spanish football – and is hopeful that he may be on the radar of clubs who didn’t know him before his MLS stint.
“I have never been in contact yet with a Ligue 1 club, but it’s a league that I would like, just like Spain. I’m coming out of the German third division, so I surely didn’t catch their attention. But now that I have imposed in MLS, I hope they know me. ”