Ned Wagner '16 (Washington, D.C./Upper Canada College) epitomizes grit. Whenever he sees the chance to challenge, he takes it with courage. As a two-time All-Centennial Conference center back for the Dickinson men's soccer program, a relentless pursuit of excellence is part of his DNA. In addition to leading the Red Devils to 32 shutouts during his career in Carlisle, he turned his passion on the pitch into an internship with his hometown DC United of the MLS (Major League Soccer). Wagner's dynamic Dickinson experience included study abroad in Bologna, Italy and led to a job after graduation with Viacom.
The balanced, competitive athletic environment on Dickinson's campus pushed him to set high goals, overcome challenges, and take risks with a vision for reward. Key for Wagner is refusing to take no for an answer. He simply couldn't give up on his dream to play professional soccer. After moving to England with no guarantee and initial adversity, with persistence he achieved his goal. This spring he landed a roster spot, signing a contract with Alfreton Town FC in England.
Wagner checked in with Assistant Athletic Director Christian Payne, to update Red Devil nation on his first steps in professional soccer. He provides inspiration for Division III soccer student-athletes and young Dickinson alumni who are pushing the limits, showing that risk is worth the reward.
CP: Ned, congratulations on achieving your dream of playing professional soccer. What is your current situation? What is Alfreton Town FC like - division, level, culture?
NW: I recently signed for Alfreton Town FC until the end of the season. They play in the National League North (also known as the Conference North) which is two leagues below League 2. The quality is very high, with a large number of players having previous experience in the Championship, League 1, and League 2.
In England, the quality across all the levels is so high. It is the biggest market in the world, and with that comes the most competition. Even at the 6th tier in England, players make enough money to comfortably live. With such a big platform to be seen, you have a constant influx of talented players competing across all levels for roster spots.
I always knew I wanted to play in England. It is a difficult market to break into, but once you make it, your career can change immediately. Crowds are typically range in thousands. If you have a good game and a scout sees you, you trial at a bigger club the next week.
My goal was to find a club and finish the season strong. The summer is where most of the shuffling happens and you have opportunities to climb the ladder. Alfreton Town was particularly attractive to me due to their reputation of advancing players into League 1/League 2.
CP: What did it take to get signed? Share some details about the process for you to make it.
NW: The process was not glamorous to say the least. I essentially risked it all. I saved money, quit my job in New York City, bought a one-way ticket to London, and started from scratch. I left everything, including my family, friends, and loved ones. However, I knew I was still making the right decision.
After Dickinson, I always believed I was capable of making it to the pro level. However, I had never made a real effort to actually go for it. That decision was eating away at me and it got to a point where I didn't want to look back at my life in 30 years and have regrets. Arriving in London brought challenges, because I didn't know anyone and had to figure it out on the fly. I touched down at Heathrow on November 12, 2017. The goal was to come over, find a team, and try to begin climbing the ladder. However, getting a trial turned out to be near impossible.
Upon arrival, I had no agent and no teams with interest. Day by day, I just tried to build connections and get my name out there. I emailed hundreds of agents in Europe, sent letters to coaches, and joined a local team that plays in the 9th tier of English football. I was doing whatever I could to just start somewhere. However, nobody responded. In England, playing in college is not something that aspiring pros do. They instead start at a young age in the academies (13-17 years old), and work their way up all the way to the First Team. By 21, most players have already played 3 years of professional football.
I honestly almost gave up and booked a ticket back home. Then one evening, I got a random email from an agent who said he had heard about me, and wanted to chat. Needless to say, I was skeptical and I didn't want to get my hopes up. However, I decided to send him my game footage and he reviewed it. One conversation led to another and eventually, he wanted to take a chance on me. My agent reached out to clubs and was able to develop some interest. In the meantime, I had to be ready just in case I got an opportunity. I continued to train wherever I could, using Google Maps to locate fields in the London area. Getting access to a decent field was always a challenge, so I used whatever I could. I often had to resort to brick walls, outdoor basketball courts, and public parks. Also, training outside by yourself in December and January isn't the most pleasant experience. Looking back at it, I laugh at some of the places I had to train. I was by definition, grinding it out.
At the end of January, I received a text. My agent was able to set up a 1 day trial at Alfreton Town FC. Alfreton trains in Doncaster, which is east of Manchester in the north of England. I had to be at practice the very next day, so I booked a train from London and took all my luggage with me. Fortunately, I did well enough in practice to be invited back, and after going through trials for a few weeks, I was offered a contract.
CP: How did playing soccer at Dickinson help you reach this milestone?
NW: When you make the jump from high school to college, it can be a big wake up call for a lot of players. The speed and physicality of the game changes and it takes players some time to adjust. I was one of them. Dickinson allowed me to develop the work ethic and self-belief that has carried me on. When you play college soccer, you have your regular season from August through November. However, especially at the Division III level, the rest of the year is primarily up to you. With a limited spring season, you need to be committed to working hard on your own for long stretches of the year. Without that mentality, I wouldn't have been able to do what I did in England.
Dickinson is a quality soccer program. Over the past 15 years, Coach (Brian) Redding has managed to recruit a number of players that would excel at the Division I level. Being a part of those teams challenged me on a daily basis, and as a result, made me a better player.
CP: How did playing for Coach Redding help you? What personal/tactical skills did you develop?
NW: I needed time to adjust when I transitioned from high school to college. I only played a total of 60 minutes as a freshman. Coach Redding improved me significantly over the course of that first year, and gave me the belief that if I continued doing all the right things, my opportunity would eventually come. It is no fluke that he has established Dickinson as one of the nation's top Division III soccer programs. His ability to bring the best out of players is unmatched, and I owe a lot of my success to him.
CP: What advice would you offer to another Dickinson or Division III soccer player who wants to make it to the professional level?
NW: The most important thing is to never lose sight of what you want to achieve and to always believe in yourself. Especially at the Division III level, there are going to be people who doubt you, discourage you, and even judge you for pursuing this as a profession. I've faced that for years, but I've continued to push. The reality is that many talented athletes often choose Division III over Division I because they have other interests outside of their sport. If you want to make the jump from Division III to professional in America, you are going to face challenges. This isn't to say it is impossible, because it's not.
It takes a great deal of independence and self-belief to make it. I was training alone in England for 3 months before I got my first trial. I was staying in Airbnbs, hostels, and spending as little money as possible to try to stretch out my savings. I often didn't know where I was sleeping the next night, and I was constantly on the move. It was a rollercoaster ride mentally, and there were weeks I really struggled. It was all worth it.
My advice is simple. If it is something you want to accomplish, fight for it. Block out the noise. Commit 100% and no matter what people say, don't lose hope. At the end of the day, it is your life and you need to do what makes you happy.
Take the leap of faith. If you get an opportunity to play, you never know what can happen. It's not where you start, it's where you finish.
CP: You played a Cup Match v. Chesterfield FC. Share with Red Devil Nation what this experience was like.
NW: An exciting part of the English Football System are the Cup competitions (FA Cup, FA Trophy, etc). These competitions give smaller clubs chances to compete against clubs at the very top of the football pyramid. For example, in 2017, Sutton United drew Arsenal in the 5th Round of the FA Cup. Sutton are in the 5th tier of England, meanwhile Arsenal are one of the biggest teams in the world. This event was obviously highly publicized on TV, and resulted in Arsenal advancing on a 2-0 scoreline.
While we didn't draw a team nearly as big as Arsenal, we were tasked with facing Chesterfield FC, a team currently in League 2 in England. The game was very memorable for me on a personal level. To go from playing in Division III at Dickinson, to facing an English League 2 team shows how far I have come. Unfortunately, we ended up losing 1-0 in a hard-fought match. It was an unbelievable experience and something I will always remember.
CP: What's next for you Ned?
NW: Currently, I am a free agent. Since I arrived in England mid-season with zero contacts, my options were limited. The goal was to just find a team at a competitive professional level and finish until the end of the season. Heading into summer, this is the time when teams re-organize and signings happen for players. My agent has interest from bigger teams in higher leagues. Whether I re-sign or move upwards, I can't answer that right now. Once everything is finalized this summer and I know where I will play, I will provide an update.