Aly Wagner Comes of Age
Feb. 13, 2003
by Llew Llewellyn
February 5, 2003 (CSA) -- In what Spirit general manager Dave Presher called "one of the worst kept secrets in history," San Diego left no doubt and took Santa Clara and U.S. national team midfielder Aly Wagner as the first overall pick in Sunday's WUSA draft.
So highly does the Spirit think of the 22-year-old Wagner that they executed the biggest trade in WUSA's short history, swapping the second overall 2003 draft pick, two starting players, and a reserve to the New York Power in return for an aging defender, a rookie, and the advancement of a single place in the draft.
Wagner has been touted as the biggest midfield talent yet to emerge from the American women's soccer scene, a true "number ten." Her teammates and coaches all praise her in terms that haven't been heard around U.S. soccer circles since the emergence of Claudio Reyna and Tab Ramos.
"The attacking midfielder, men or women, is a key position that is very difficult to develop because it takes a variety of creativity, skill, vision and a real instinct for creating and scoring goals," said Presher a few days after watching Wagner play Japan at Torero Stadium, the home of the Spirit. "In the American professional game, including MLS, foreign players fill that position. [We took] the opportunity to pick what we see as the best American player ever in that position.
"I think that it's only a matter of time before she is the WUSA Player of the Year. Down the line I'm sure that she will eventually come under consideration for best player at a World Cup or Olympic games"
Jerry Smith, Santa Clara head coach
April Heinrichs, head coach for the U.S. Women's National Team, sees Wagner as a player that could fill different roles on the team.
"Aly is a young player that we are still developing in a lot of roles and you may see her in a couple of different slots on the team," Heinrichs said. "If we want to pigeonhole her, she's the creative attacking center mid and she has the ability to spray the ball around the park and serve the ball with texture on every pass. The players love receiving balls from Aly Wagner."
Indeed they do. Wagner's comfort level on the ball allows her the luxury to think about where to send the ball when she receives it, rather than how to handle it.
"She is technical enough to no longer be concerned about the ball. Ninety-nine percent of the players I have coached in the last 20 years spend so much time thinking about the ball that they are not thinking about the game," said Wagner's college and U.S. U-21 coach Jerry Smith. "Aly rarely thinks about the ball.
"There is not a ball that doesn't come to her where she is wondering how to collect it, manipulate it and do something with it. She is so comfortable on the ball that she never thinks about it, she just thinks about the game and that puts her a step ahead of most players."
U.S. standout defender Brandi Chastain has known Aly for the past decade and has nothing but praise for the young player.
"I think that her greatest quality, besides her passion for the game, is that she sees it all on a more complex level," Chastain said. "Her balls have texture. They don't just go straight with whatever surface. She chooses the surface, the bend, or pace.
So, who is Alyson Kay Wagner?
Mom and the Mercury
Wagner starting playing in her hometown of San Jose at the age of five with the Central Valley Mercury of the Central Santa Clara Valley Youth Soccer League. Initially under the guidance of her mother Vicky Wagner, Aly was following in the footsteps of her two brothers Jeff and Jered, and her sister Sam, who later went on to play soccer at UC Berkeley.
In a remarkable streak, Aly was to stay with the Mercury for 14 years with her mother, and later her father Dennis, who had coached Sam Wagner and the Central Valley Express to the U-17 girls national championship in 1995. The Mercury became one of the top youth teams in the country, winning the U.S. Youth Soccer National Championships for an unprecedented three years running between 1996-98.
"I had spent a couple of years coaching her older sister, and when she turned old enough to play, her dad took Sam, and I stayed with Aly and finished up with her when she was 18," said Vicky Wagner sitting in the lobby of a San Diego hotel the day before the U.S. game against Japan, while a table away Aly and her father intently watched a NFL playoff game on a nearby big-screen TV.
"A player like her comes around perhaps once a decade."
"In the last game of her U-7 season, we had a playoff game, which when I look back now was ridiculous. The league had two undefeated teams, which happened to meet at the end of the season, and they battled each other to a 7-7 tie and Aly scored all seven goals. A prime example of what U-7 soccer should not be.
"Her two best friends in soccer were on the other team, and their father came to me and said that it was ridiculous and why didn't we join forces and get the girls together on a single team. They started playing together as eight-year-olds, and by the time we were U-10s, we were able to have competitive teams, which meant that you could have tryouts.
"We had a pretty solid team at that point and by the time we were U-12, we had a sudden influx of talent because we had been pretty successful. We spent a great deal of time on skill. Just skills, skills, skills."
In a flash of insight, Vicky Wagner had hit upon a method of creating competition within her team. Realizing that ball control was an essential part of the game of soccer, she encouraged her players to concentrate on ball juggling and instituted the "juggling ladder" as a way for her young players to pit their control skills against each other.
The ladder consisted of a yardstick and wooden clothespins marked with players names. After a basic order was established, every practice would begin with juggling challenges, with a lower player challenging a higher ranked player up the ladder. They would juggle against each other three times, and if a lower ranked player beat the higher ranked one, then their clothespin was moved above the challenged player.
"The girls competed against each other every practice and that became a real focal point of something that they could do at home," Vicky Wagner said. "We would send them home in the summer when they weren't on teams with juggle challenges. They would have to juggle with tennis balls, left foot, right foot.
"I came up with the idea and they had to tell me where they were when they came back. They spent a good deal of time just touching the ball. I guess that made them a little bit special."
The girls could juggle the ball with 100 touches by age 8 or 9, and Aly could do 1,500 touches by age 10. The idea of being comfortable on the ball was to pay huge dividends down the road.
"That was an awesome thing that turned juggling into a competitive event," said Aly. "I loved it and always wanted to be at the top of the juggling ladder. It spurred me on even more to be a better juggler.
"Then she hired the trainer, which was a huge thing for us."
After coaching the Mercury for several years, Vicky Wagner realized at the U-12 age group that the team was improving so rapidly that it was time to find someone who would be able to take the team to another level. She contacted Santa Clara University head coach Jerry Smith and wife Brandi Chastain.
"Aly's mom was coaching her youth team and it came to the point that she needed someone with more soccer experience to work with her," remembered Smith. "She approached Brandi and I about doing that, but neither of us could afford as much time as it would require to coach a youth team, but I had an assistant coach, Philippe Blin, and I introduced the two of them."
At that point, Vicky Wagner's role changed from trainer to manager.
"Philippe became the trainer because at that point I didn't have the ability to take them to the level they needed to go," Vicky Wagner said. "My job was to keep everything running smoothly and keep a lot of really talented kids and their parents happy."
Blin's approach to coaching 11-year-old girls was to treat them the same way he treated the young women he coached at Santa Clara University, and he was instrumental in leading the Mercury through their three national championships.
"He came from a college program and early on he started to train us the way that college teams train, [although] obviously not at the same level," Aly Wagner said. "But it gave us a glimpse into the future and we all became better players because of it."
According to Vicky Wagner, Blin's expectation level was high.
"Philippe was a wonderful trainer and he brought them to a level early on that most teams would never reach, "she said. "Practices were very business-like and you had to perform. There was a lot of competition on the team."
The Wagner-led Mercury had become the team to join in the San Jose area. They took numerous local, area and state titles and produced an astonishing number of players who went on to become top-flight college players and vital members of both WUSA and U.S. women's teams.
"The team attracted incredibly talented players," remembered Vicky Wagner. "Danielle Slaton [first overall pick in the 2002 WUSA draft], Anna Kraus who plays for the San Diego Spirit, and Krista and Breana Boling who were stars in their own right at UCLA.
"Shaelyn Fernandes, who was the goalie at USC and who is about to marry [2002 Heisman Trophy Winner] Carson Palmer. We had Marcia Wallis, who went to Stanford, and Katy MacBain at Texas. Kristina Jacobs played for San Jose State. I think we had 13-14 girls who ended up at Division 1 schools.
When the Mercury took their third national title, Aly was forced to sit out the final game after suffering an ACL injury while practicing with the U.S. U-20 national team. The injury -- her second ACL surgery -- not only required her to miss the U-18 title match, but also had repercussions in her freshman year as a college player.
Aly doesn't take the easy way out
By the time Aly Wagner was in her senior year at high school, it was obvious to college coaches nationwide that her soccer talent was special. She was heavily recruited by all the top women's programs in the country. Stanford, Virginia and perennial NCAA champions North Carolina were all under consideration, but it eventually boiled down to 1995 champions Notre Dame and Santa Clara, who had come close to -- but never won -- a national championship.
The head coach of Notre Dame at that time was the highly regarded Chris Petrucelli, who has since moved to Texas.
"Notre Dame was her second choice and she enjoyed Chris Petrucelli very much," Vicky Wagner said. "He came to our house for a recruiting visit and Aly went back to Notre Dame.
"Chris' wife was just about to have a baby and he wanted to come to see us again, but we had decided that Aly was going to make all her trips before she made her decision because that was the only way to be fair and objective.
"We told Chris that it was crazy for him to come out and that we would take Aly to South Bend to take one more look at the campus. It was during the draw for the Final Four and we flew in the middle of the week and Aly watched them practice while it was snowing.
"She was standing shuffling from one foot to another and saying that she couldn't feel her feet. And if she couldn't feel her feet, how was she going to be able to play?"
When asked about the incident, Aly laughs the way children do when their parents talk about them.
"That wasn't the determining factor," she said, and then paused for just a beat. "But it did play a role."
Santa Clara University was a short drive from her home and head coach Jerry Smith and wife Brandi Chastain were family friends. The school had never won a College Cup, but there were several players on the team who were nationally known and respected.
"I was so excited about college because of the whole recruiting process," Aly Wagner said. "And then making my choice and being able to play with Mandy Clemens and Kylie Bivens and the rest."
"She has known Jerry since she was nine when she went to a soccer camp and maybe it was always in the back of her mind that would be automatic," Vicky Wagner said. "I went to Nordstrom [department store] and bought sweatshirts. She came home and said, `This is where I want to go.'"
"Once I made the decision, she went into the closet and gave me the Santa Clara sweatshirt," said Aly Wagner. "She told me she had one of each."
Vicky and Dennis Wagner were glad that their youngest daughter had made the decision to stay close to home, but they were also proud that she had not taken the easiest route to winning any more championships.
"She made the decision to go somewhere that had never won a national championship," noted Vicky Wagner. "She wanted to help make that dream come true."
The ACL injury that forced Aly to miss the U-18 U.S. Youth Soccer National Championship final was to follow her into Santa Clara, where she was forced to sit out her true freshman year. At the end of the season, Jerry Smith had his team in the College Cup semifinals and there was talk of bringing Wagner into the team. But Smith made the judgment call not to push his young phenom, a move that in retrospect seems to have been the right decision.
"She trained toward the end of the year, but didn't play," Smith said. "It was her second ACL surgery and it happened in the summer so we red-shirted her. We were in the Final Four in 1998 and she was training well and there was a small chance we were going to activate her, but I'm really glad that we didn't do that. It would have been just for that weekend and who knows, maybe it would have helped us win the championship."
Aly says that any part she might have played at that point could well have been marginal. In the end she gained another year of eligibility.
"I am so glad [Smith] did that," she laughed. "That was obviously a wise decision on our part. Who knew how I would have impacted the team that year by coming back from ACL surgery?"
Santa Clara fell 1-0 in the semi-final to eventual champions Florida, but looking back at the decision, her time spent on the bench was not wasted and in some fashion may have helped her.
"It was really disappointing, but at the same time it might have made my transition even a little bit easier because I didn't jump onto the field right away," noted Wagner. "I was at most of the practices, whether or not I was in therapy, but being on the sidelines you actually learn more by watching.
"I think that is why I could think the same way as Jerry about the game. It's engrained in me, all the things that he taught the team along the way. I attribute that to watching my freshman year."
Along the way, Wagner and long-time teammate Danielle Slaton had taken a fourth U.S. Youth Soccer championship, this time at the U-20 level under Tom Stone's Colorado Rush.
In 1999 and 2000, Santa Clara was taken out of the NCAA tournament by the spurned Notre Dame, although by this time Randy Waldrum was leading the Fighting Irish. In 2001, Santa Clara shocked North Carolina by beating them 1-0 in the final game, with Wagner scoring the winning goal.
In 2002, her senior year, Wagner and the Broncos were again in the College Cup final, but lost 1-0 to Clive Charles' Portland on an overtime goal from another young phenom, Canadian Christine Sinclair.
Wagner was visibly emotional after the loss to the Pilots, but although she doesn't recall crying on the field, later in the day was a different matter
"I've watched the game, but I don't remember seeing myself crying," she said. "About 15 minutes after the game I could not stop."
Wagner says that the loss at the College Cup was magnified by the part of her personality that makes her a player that is driven to win.
"Very much so, I'm very competitive," she admitted. "Jerry puts it best when he says that it's more painful to lose than it is enjoyable to win.
"It was more than [losing] the game. It was my final college game and it didn't go the way we wanted. I wasn't going to be playing for Jerry anymore, so there were more emotions tied up in my reaction than just losing."
Demands on her time from Heinrichs and the U.S. national team in a world cup qualifying year meant that, although Santa Clara was once again in the NCAA finals, Wagner was forced to miss more than her fair share of games, nine in total of the 26 played.
In between Sunday and Wednesday games in the 2002 CONCACAF Women's Gold Cup in Seattle, Smith and Chastain drove to Seattle, picked up Wagner and drove back to Portland in order to have her play in a vital WCC game against rivals Portland, whose own star Christine Sinclair remained with the Canadian team. The Broncos beat their conference rivals 1-0.
"There is no question that was a big match for us," Smith explained. "Generally, either Portland or Santa Clara will win our conference. As it turned out, the U.S. was playing a weak team in Panama in Seattle on Saturday and we were playing Portland on Sunday.
"The combination of the U.S. playing a weak team -- I think the score was 8-0 at halftime -- and the proximity of the cities, we thought, might work. If [the U.S.] had had a tougher match on Saturday, then it may not have worked and we may not have brought Aly down. But we knew she wouldn't have to expend too much energy in the Panama game."
"She was definitely very tired in our game. She didn't have her `A' game, but having her on the field made a difference for us. I have to say that Portland not having Christine Sinclair made a difference for them, so certainly those factors contributed to winning our match and ultimately the conference championship."
The professional game calls
Long before Wagner's last game with the Broncos was played, new San Diego Spirit GM Dave Presher knew that, in order to get Wagner, he needed to gamble heavily to secure the most exciting prospect on the women's soccer horizon. Shortly after he settled into his new office, Presher executed the biggest trade in WUSA history, sending Shannon Boxx, Sherrill Kester and Margaret Tietjen to New York, and taking Jen Lalor and Wynne McIntosh.
Far more importantly, the teams also traded positions in the draft, meaning the Spirit now had the No. 1 pick -- and that meant Aly Wagner.
"I really didn't think that we would be able to trade to get her, but we did and I'm happy about it," said Presher, whose team had failed to make the 2002 WUSA playoffs. "From my side, when I came in, we hadn't made the playoffs and we didn't have a coach and now I have Aly Wagner and a couple of key internationals. I really see us making progress.
"The difference having a number 10 is that it makes Shannon MacMillan a pure power goal scorer. Good service to her means 10 different goals per season. Give her the right service and she'll knock `em home. I'm excited about how Aly raises the level of everyone around her."
The idea that Wagner makes players around her better is echoed time and time again by her coaches and peers. Wagner, who is very modest about her abilities, tries to downplay all the fuss that surrounds her in a World Cup year.
"I hope that I can live up to those expectations and become an even better player," she said. "I'm extremely excited about what this year will bring with the league and the World Cup. If I can make an impact on the WUSA and then make the World Cup roster and help the team get to the Final or whatever -- that would be an amazing opportunity."
Wagner is not yet a complete package. She has to work on her defending skills and ability to head the ball, but those things will come in time according to Heinrichs.
"She has great vision and she is working very hard on her defense and air game and to fit into our team, and still allow her to be the creative playmaker with a license to express herself," Heinrichs said. "What we are asking from Aly is to continue to develop and get better [even] when she steps on the field and doesn't play as well as she likes.
"During the course of our games, you can look at some of our veteran players and see that if they didn't play well in the first half, they got better in the second, which is a sign of a real veteran player. That will be a big step for Aly.
According to Heinrichs, Wagner's fitness will be an issue as well.
"If she wants to play at the international level she needs to develop her fitness base," Heinrichs said. "With no disrespect to Santa Clara, the collegiate game is not as fast and not as high paced, so she will have to develop that side of her game.
"We would [also] like her to finish her own opportunities, to strike that ball and maybe hang onto it a little and get the shot off herself."
Smith, who has spent more time with Wagner than most, says the midfielder's game is constantly improving.
"Those are just weaker parts of a strong player," said Smith, who pointed out that the assist for the U.S. goal-winning strike at the Gold Cup was a headed ball from the midfield by Wagner. "I would have said a couple of years ago that there would have been weaknesses in her heading game and three years ago weaknesses in her defensive game. Aly is actually a very good defensive player; she anticipates and reads the game really well.
"When people criticize her in terms of her defending, it's oftentimes that she doesn't give the effort to do it and she needs the people she is playing with to constantly remind her to put in as much defensive effort as she does in her attacking game."
With a lot riding on her young shoulders, Wagner has a lot of time to devote herself to the game now that she has graduated college, where she also shined off the field. After keeping a 4.1 grade average at Presentation High School, she graduated college with a 3.44 average and was chosen to be part of the prestigious NCAA Top Eight, in which only eight student athletes, male or female, are chosen for their academic ability.
After the U.S.-Japan game in San Diego, Wagner could be seen sprinting up the slope leading to the locker rooms in order to make the 80-mile drive to Anaheim to collect her award.
"I hadn't even heard of it!" Wagner admitted. "I guess that it's pretty neat."
Wagner says that being so heavily involved in an athletic program has given her the ability to focus on her studies when needed, although that is coupled with that desire to excel in anything she does.
"I think that being a student athlete, you are more disciplined in terms of time management, and that's a big factor," she noted. "I'm able to learn well from teaching myself because I have been away from class a lot. But I do really enjoy learning, so that's a bonus.
"I probably actually spent more time studying than most students because I was not in class and had to make up the work, plus all the other out-of-class work. I'm more focused when I am doing it."
She stopped for a second and then laughed.
"I'm not sure how it's worked out!"
Laughing is something that Wagner does a lot. It comes easily to her and is appreciated by those around her.
"She is just a fun personality," Smith said. "She can be a little moody at times, but I think that is because she cares so much about what she is doing and the people that she is with. She truly gets excited when she or her team play well in a big match.
"She is really a full package. If I had to turn someone onto the game, I'd have them watch Aly Wagner because she is going to get you excited about how she plays and manipulates the ball. And when you talk to her you are going to be even more entertained."
It's long way from those coed games that got Wagner started in soccer, but the future is opening in front of her and there seems to be little doubt that she will become a force in the world game.
"She was taught that the game was not just black-and-white, but there were shades of gray," said Chastain, who is Wagner's self-admitted role model. "She plays in those shades at times, when you think that you are going to see something and you get something else.
"That is the complexity that she brings to the game."
Llew Llewellyn can be reached at email@example.com. © Llewellyn/Cyber Soccer Associates, LLC 2002