After a successful stay in Major League Soccer, Philadelphia Union left-back Kai Wagner appears to be heading towards the exit. With his contract expiring in December, Wagner posted a farewell on his Instagram story ahead of his regular season home finale match against Nashville SC. The German has been a regular for the Philadelphia Union since signing for the club.
Wagner joined notorious bargain hunters Philadelphia in 2019 from 3. Liga side Würzburger Kickers, having previously featured for SSV Ulm, Schalke II, and the u19s of Augsburg. He settled in quickly in America, playing 30 matches and assisting six goals in his debut season. In total, he has played 136 MLS games for the club, scoring five goals and assisting 27 (the MLS website says he has 39, as they count secondary assists).
Throughout his stay in Philadelphia, Wagner has flirted with a move back to Europe. In 2020, he was linked with Premier League clubs West Ham and Fulham. Two years later, he was linked with Leeds United. He has also said on many occasions that he would love a move back to Europe, notably in an interview with Kicker in 2020.
Despite this interest, fan-favorite Wagner has always stayed. Philadelphia remains in pursuit of an elusive MLS Cup and has kept a relatively strong core group of players together, with Wagner being a key member of the side. However, losing the left-back is now a real possibility—Wagner wants more money, and Philadelphia’s ownership is not willing to give him that. So where could he move in January?
Homecoming: Schalke 04
Let’s start with a club Wagner has been linked with for a little while: his former club, Schalke.
Wagner signed for fourth-tier side Schalke II for free from SSV Ulm and quickly impressed, becoming a regular in the side. He left for third-tier Würzburger after just one season, but he hasn’t forgotten Die Königsblauen. In 2022, he visited the club’s training ground and has admitted in the past to being a Schalke fan.
Right now, it would be an admittedly strange move. Schalke, recently relegated from the Bundesliga, is having a torrid time in the 2. Bundesliga. They have just two wins in eight matches, the financial situation is questionable, and manager Thomas Reis has just been sacked.
On the other hand, if Schalke is in a decent position by January, this move could pay off big time. A good defender and a better passer, Wagner fits the club’s system and would provide improved service for striker duo Simon Terrode and Kenan Karaman. And, crucially for Schalke, it would be a free transfer. For Wagner, this move would offer familiarity and a chance to audition for Bundesliga clubs.
Surprise Candidates: U.S. Lecce
Recent rumors suggest that the German has received interest from Serie A side U.S. Lecce—and this would actually be a great fit.
Like Philadelphia, Lecce has somewhat of a moneyball approach to recruitment. Compared to other Serie A sides, they don’t have much money — only four teams spent less in summer — so they have turned to signing players from unfashionable places. Morten Hjulmand, for example, was signed for €2.5 million from Admira Wacker and was sold to Sporting Lisbon for €18 million. Nikola Krstović, signed from Dunajska Streda, is currently one of the top scorers in Serie A.
Wagner would be just the kind of signing Lecce likes: low-cost (or, in this instance, no cost, as he would be a free transfer), high-reward. While Lecce has decent depth on the flanks, it’s hard to imagine a situation where Wagner wouldn’t quickly become a starter for the side. Lecce, currently seventh in Serie A, could use a player who constantly puts the ball in dangerous positions in a league known for its defending.
For Wagner, this provides an opportunity to play in a top European league. If he signed for Lecce and impressed during those six months, he could even potentially find his way on the German national team for the European Championship.
Staying in America: FC Cincinnati
While he has made noise in the past, Wagner has seemingly grown quite comfortable in the United States. The problem is Philadelphia doesn’t want to pay him. Easy solution? Go to an MLS team that will pay him what he deserves.
Cincinnati has essentially become Philadelphia 2.0. This season, they won their first trophy, the Supporters’ Shield (awarded to the best regular season MLS team). To do this, they hired Philadelphia staff members Pat Noonan and Chris Albright to become the head coach and general manager, respectively. They even recruited Ray Gaddis, Sergio Santos, Alvas Powell all from Philadelphia.
The main difference between the two clubs: Cincinnati is willing to spend much more money than Philadelphia is. Cincinnati’s record signing cost $10 million more. According to The Athletic, they spend $3 million more on salaries. With Cincinnati’s Alvaro Barreal potentially on the move, Wagner would be an easy, quality signing to replace him with. Cincinnati would almost certainly pay Wagner what he wants.
Staying: Philadelphia Union
Despite his farewell post, it’s not completely impossible that Wagner stays.
He has stated, several times, that he would stay if he was offered what he is worth. Per the MLS Players Salary Guide, he is paid $630,000 annually—not a lot for a two-time All Star who has been a key figure for a very successful side. For reference, Nashville defender Walker Zimmerman makes three times that amount, while Inter Miami’s Jordi Alba reportedly makes $1 million more.
MLS rules are changing to make the league less financially restrictive, but, to be honest, that isn’t what is preventing Philadelphia from keeping Wagner. The owners of the club simply do not invest enough to keep key members of the squad in Philadelphia. As long as they refuse to spend money, they will struggle to keep their best players.