Underestimated is a 10 part series exploring underestimated, tenacious and occasionally misunderstood players. Written by Zito Madu and brought to you by WeaselsFC.
Watching Sarah Hagen’s videos of her time in college and with Bayern Munich is delightful. Her game is simple. Her style is a simplicity that comes not out of a lack of ability, but because there’s no need to overcomplicate things. She was aware of her strengths and weaknesses, and chose to exert her strengths instead of fighting through her flaws.
Limited players can sometimes be boring to watch. When a player lacks talent and is unable to accomplish their job on the field, the few things that they’re allowed to do are usually a way to justify their time in the team, rather than anything of real consequence. Hagen was a striker, and a striker’s job is mainly to score goals. Hagen did that as well as anyone else during her time in college and in Germany. She broke school records and finished ninth in most goals scored in NCAA Division I history. She didn’t struggle against her limitations, she constricted what she did in order to achieve her goals as efficiently as possible.
What I love the most about Hagen’s style of play is the physical domination of defenders in the air. Soccer is a sport of ultra-talented and physically gifted athletes, but within that realm of nearly supernatural humans, exists outliers. Hagen is 5’11 and was much bigger than typical defenders and forwards. She had an advantage that she used to abuse her opponents.
In many of her goals, she simply out-jumped or bullied defenders in the air for headers. The most that defenders could do against her was to prevent her from jumping in the first place. Such a tactic could easily lead to fouls or being forced to comprise a defense in order to put another body on her. Defenders could also try to stop the cross from coming in to begin with. But once the ball was in the air, and she’s running at goal, there was little to nothing that could be done to prevent her from scoring or at least putting the header on target.
Hagen also understood that striking the ball hard is a deadly skill in itself. She scored a few glorious long range shots but the more unseen and yet still wonderful goals came when she was in positions where the angle was tight or there were too many bodies between her and the goal for a finesse shot. She knew that the best way to solve the problem of scoring in those situations was to simply hit the ball so well and hard that well-positioned defenders or goalkeepers could not react fast enough. Hitting the ball hard is a relatively easy skill for professionals, but the ability to hit the ball hard and into specific and small areas of the goal, is an ability that even the elite players struggle with.
Hagen has an interesting career trajectory. For one half of her career, she seemed the perfect sports story with the narrative of overcoming adversity and reaching greatness through the cliche of wanting it bad enough and mastery of the technical and physical sides of the game. She was diagnosed with cancer with ovarian cancer at 15 years old, a life event which could have understandably derailed her soccer prospects and dreams, but only emboldened her even more:
“I was diagnosed with a cancer called Dysgerminoma, which is a germ-cell tumor, in January of my freshman year of high school when I was 15 years old. My first surgery was an exploratory surgery, which they found out that the tumor was connected to a big blood vessel so they didn’t want to risk me bleeding out. Also, the size of the tumor was an issue because they didn’t know what it was all attached to. After the biopsy came back, I went through three rounds of chemotherapy for treatment. The tumor started off at about the size of a size 4 soccer ball and by May it had shrunk to the size of a baseball. During my second round of chemo I had an allergic reaction to one of the drugs and went into anaphylactic shock. That was probably one of the scariest things I have ever gone through. But by May 6, 2005 I had my final surgery to remove the tumor and I was cancer free.”
After beating cancer, she not only went to play in college but to dominate at University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, where she set school and Division 1 goalscoring records. By the end of her time in college, her story is already incredible. It reads like a movie script. Still, she went on to do more. After graduation, she moved to Germany to play for Bayern Munich where she continued her hot scoring streak, managing 38 goals in 51 games.
Hagen said in an interview with WeasleFC that during her time at Bayern Munich, she was told to emulate Robert Lewandowski. Lewandowski shared her playing profile of being a tall and powerful striker, who may not be the fastest or most agile, but he uses his body, intelligence, and combination play, to be one of the most lethal strikers in the world. Though she was well on her way to emulating the Polish striker while in Germany, after she left, Hagen’s career completely derailed.
When Lewandowski turned 28, he entered into one of the most productive phases in his career, and now at 31, he is arguably the best striker in the world and has been so for the last few years. At the age of 28, a striker should be going into their prime and he’s another evidence of this idea. A player’s prime is of course impacted by how many games the player has participated in, and overall wear and tear on their bodies, but that age should signal a peak in which a player’s physical and mental powers are at their highest.
When Hagen reached 28, she retired from professional soccer. After leaving Bayern to return to the United States to play in the National Women’s Soccer League, which succeeded the Women Professional Soccer league that Hagen had been drafted into before choosing to go overseas — the WPS suspended play the same year that Hagen went to Bayern — she played for four different teams, scoring a total of ten goals in 61 goals, before deciding to give up the game.
At first it seems that Hagen’s career was cut short because of her style of play. She was a traditional number nine: a tall, powerful, and slow striker. Someone who worked best with a smaller and more agile strike partner. Strikers like her are often seen today as relics of the past, players who have no place in the present world of fast and creative forwards.
Rachel Daly and Kealia Ohai, who started the most games at forward for the Houston Dash in Hagen’s lone season there, were both under 5’6. Nichelle Prince, who was on the fringes with Hagen — who still started more games than Hagen — was also much smaller. In Orlando, where Hagen saw a good deal of playing time and managed two goals and and two assists, the same contrast followed with the more prominent forwards of the team, Alex Morgan and Jasmyne Spencer. Everywhere she went, she was kept out of the lineup by players who were smaller, quicker, and more imaginative.
After being released by the Pride who were making space to bring in Marta, another small, fast, and creative forward, Hagen lamented the conflict between her style of play and what the Pride wanted:
“I take pride in being able to hold up the ball and get other players involved…In Orlando that style of soccer wasn’t a priority. To be with a coach who knows that is the kind of player I am and that he wants to take advantage of is refreshing.”
The same problem infringed on Hagen’s national team career. She only made two appearances for the United States. It’s almost symbolic that in Hagen’s first appearance, she replaced Abby Wambach, who has a similar style of play. Wambach was at the end of her career and Hagen seemed a perfect fit to replace her. But Hagen’s time with the national team coincided with the beginning of Jill Ellis’ tenure as coach of the women’s national team, which saw a shift away from playing into that big forward and emphasized more on players with speed and individual ability. She could have been the new Wambach but the times changed where her and Wambach were no longer needed.
In the same interview with WeasleFC, Hagen expressed that she believed the early end of her career was due to the lack of interest in players of her profile, and the mental struggles that came with that devaluation:
“I think what I offered as a forward wasn’t like many players at that position on a lot of teams, not just the national team. I offered more of a…typical nine, strong, tall, I combine well with players, really good at finishing the ball in the air. The one downfall of my game was my speed, I wasn’t always necessarily the fastest player.”
“I was on teams with other really fast forwards, over in Germany at Bayern we had always played a standard 4-4-2. I think I really thrived on having that one other forward with me to combine with…that was really my bread and butter. To be playing either a 4-5-1 or 4-3-3 where I didn’t have that direct partner as a forward, I don’t know if that necessarily suited my style the best.”
“And for me, I think I struggled towards the end of my career just accepting my role as less minutes, and maybe not starting games and coming off the bench. It was hard to see how coaches didn’t appreciate what I brought to the game as a forward, and it took its toll on me.”
From one perspective, Hagen’s story then can be seen as one of failure. She fits perfectly into the mold of unfulfilled potential. What she achieved as a professional after Bayern, or rather what she failed to achieve, is jarring considering the player that she was in Germany and in college. Once seen as a readymade star in Europe and destined for a long tenure in the national team, she retired without making any consequential contributions for her country. In the end, it seemed that the game of football passed her by, that she came into the scene just a few years too late.
From another perspective, Hagen’s story is hard to reduce to the binary and strict ideas of success and failure, even if she retired early and was frustrated at being forced away from the game. Lewandowski, who she was supposed to emulate still plays, and is extremely successful, and on the women’s side, someone like Jessica MacDonald who has a similar style to Hagen, is still finding success in the NWSL. There’s still space in the game for someone like her.
There was an influx of faster and smaller forwards and the game did shift towards speed and creativity, but had Hagen been with a team which used her strengths, simplified the game for her as she had done for herself, rather than trying to force her into formations and styles which weren’t suited, there would have been no reason to think that she couldn’t have been successful. Had she been played in a standard 4-4-2, or any formation which would have brought a strike partner closer to her and allowed her to perform her duties of holding up the ball and combining with those around her, it’s not out of the range of imagination to think that she would have continued on the path to greatness that she had from college and Germany.
I struggle to think of a player who survived cancer, went on to become one of the best college players ever, and then dominated in Europe, as anything close to a failure, even with her unsuccessful time in the United States. In an old interview promoting his book about the invention of failure as a concept, Scott Sandage commented that the idea of a person being a failure because of lack of specific accomplishments is a relatively new thing in human history:
“But in 1819 when the economy went belly up, it was invisible and incomprehensible. It was a sea change for Americans to begin to construct their identities in a society that was secularizing, on the one hand, and experiencing cyclical booms and busts that were of uncertain origin, on the other. So about 1820, you begin to get that kind of literature about bankruptcy and failure. But there’s a 180-degree shift in the way the word failure is used: from 1820 through the Civil War, or thereabouts, failure was used to describe people who met economic catastrophe, but the construction was, “I made a failure,” rather than, “I am a failure,” It was an event that could be discrete, without touching upon one’s moral and existential being.”
It would be unfair to condemn such a talented player who can be viewed as a success by merely shifting perspective, as a failure. Yet in terms of living up to her potential, she admittedly came up short. Neither definition fits her. What I see Hagen as, if we are to look at success and failure at all, is someone who was failed by the conditions around her and who was unlucky. Her story is one which shows how fragile greatness is and how it depends so much on the right circumstances.
After Europe, Hagen never found a team nor a coach who believed enough in her talents and her style of play to cater to it. She was put into situations in which her simplified game was not and could not be effective. That conflict led to her own individual failure. She went from being the exception case to becoming the outsider and could not deal with such a fall.
When I watch Hagen’s videos, even from her unsuccessful stints, it is clear that she was extremely talented and capable. What I feel about the abrupt ending of her story is similar to what she herself expressed. It’s a feeling of frustration. I think, what a great player she was and could have been, had she been a bit more lucky in where and who she played for. We could today be talking about Hagen as one of the game’s greats, a physically dominant striker who could put the ball through the back of the net, rather than a promising star who never reached the heights she seemed destined for.
Sarah Hagen 2011 Highlights
Hagen’s brace leads Dash to 3-1 win over Breakers
Goal of the Week Nominee: Sarah Hagen – Week 4
Goal of the Week Nominee: Sarah Hagen – Week 16
8 Things About U.S. WNT Forward Sarah Hagen
Appleton’s Hagen called back into U.S. women’s national team camphttps://www.wisconsinsoccercentral.com/news_article/show/392229
UWM’s Hagen, coach united through misfortune, triumphhttps://www.espn.com/college-sports/news/story?id=3654375
Interview: Sarah Hagen – Bound for Bayern
Forward Sarah Hagen excited for new chapter with Dash
Sarah Hagen Beautiful Game Interview