April 15, 2001
By Jennifer Pfluke
Santa Clara and Under-21 national team coach Jerry Smith compared his center midfielder, Aly Wagner, to a Romanian man, and apparently, it's a pretty big compliment.
"Galatasaray has a player, Hagi, that, God, I'd pay 50 bucks a game to watch," Smith said. "I just want to watch him touch the ball. And I think on a different level, that's the kind of player Aly is. She's gifted with the ball--she's a very creative dribbler and a very crafty passer, and I think that's why when people watch her, they go, `Wow, this kid is amazing.'"
(For those unfamiliar with Gheorge Hagi, who is a definite attacking presence for the Turkish first division club Galatasaray, he is heralded as the greatest Romanian playmaker ever.)
In comparing Wagner to Hagi, Smith is simply pointing out a fact that many people already know: Wagner is a gifted player.
"It's not a complicated deal--she's just more skillful than the other players," Smith says. "She's just a very driven person, she's a very competitive person. She sets goals that most people would be too embarrassed to set like `I want to be the best women's soccer player.' People just don't set those types of goals and she does."
Dedicated. Driven. Determined.
Those characteristics are often attributed to Wagner, whose incredible work ethic has been in place for quite some time.
As a 12-year-old, she entered a juggling contest that was part of an event to raise money for her club team. She had 1500 consecutive touches on the ball.
She says she can't remember a time when she wasn't driven to succeed.
"I've always enjoyed working hard, out-working everyone around me," Wagner admitted. "Even when I was young, I always busted and worked the hardest."
Wagner's work ethic and determination to be the best were evident on her club team, the Central Valley Mercury, which is perhaps the most successful youth club in the country. While Wagner was a part of the team, the Mercury claimed three consecutive national titles.
Twins Krista and Breana Boling played with Wagner both on the Mercury and at Presentation High School in San Jose. Though the girls parted company after graduation (the Bolings play for UCLA), both still remember the impact Wagner had.
"She won't lose--she refuses to lose," Breana said. "Her work ethic is what's made her such an amazing player and what's put her above everyone else. I loved playing on her team, even in practices and small-sided games. When you're on Aly's team, you don't lose."
Adds Krista: "She just knows that soccer's a very high priority in her life, and she sacrifices a lot for it. She was a playmaker, she was like a leader of the team. I think people expected a lot from her, and she would always pull through--always."
Wagner approaches the game with an extreme amount of confidence, the origin of which she is unaware.
"I think some of it is just innate," she said. "I've definitely had ups and downs just like everyone else in terms of confidence level. It's a mindset, and I think I was able to alter that mindset a little bit.
"If you're busting on the field, and if you commit yourself 100%, you continue to gain confidence until it gets to a certain level that, even if it dips down a little bit, you're still pretty high up."
It is perhaps this confidence that has allowed her to erupt into an essential part of Santa Clara's midfield.
Though Wagner red-shirted her freshman year due to an Anterior Cruciate Ligament injury, she exploded in 1999, winning the West Coast Conference Freshman of the Year. She netted 10 goals and 12 assists for a total of 32 points.
Last season, despite being hampered by further injuries, Wagner was named Chevrolet's Youth Player of the Year.
"I didn't expect it at all," she said. "It's an amazing honor, but there are so many other players that I've played with who could just have easily won it. They're the same people who have made me the player I am, and I couldn't have done it without them. It's an honor, but at the same time it's over with, and I just have to keep pushing forward."
Fully recovered from her hamstring pull of last season and nursing a slight knee injury that should heal up well before 2001 kicks off, Wagner is looking forward to the fall.
"I think we're changing our plan of attack a little bit," she said. "We went into last season with certain skepticism, whether it was talked about or not. I think this season there's a different mindset and attitude and we have the confidence of `look what we came through last season' to build on. We just want to start on a better foot."
Smith says a large margin of Santa Clara's success will depend on Wagner's dominance in the midfield, as she will be the go-to player more often than not.
"The role that Aly has to assume with our team is to be our engine, to be our playmaker, to be the person that demands the ball and probably touches the ball the most," he said. "She will be the player that has the biggest impact in terms of what we're doing in attack on our team."
As for Wagner, she's set some pretty significant goals for herself, and she's not afraid to talk about them.
"I want to win a national championship," she said firmly. "I came to Santa Clara with that as the main goal on a team level. On a personal level, I would say becoming the smartest player I can be.
"I want to get to the point where I do all the small things correctly. I want to do all I can to become faster, quicker, and stronger, and to maximize my athletic potential."
Watching Wagner on the field, it's not hard to see she's got enormous potential, and Santa Clara is hoping to capitalize on that this fall.
After all, as Smith remarked, as Aly goes, so go the Broncos.