Playing as a Target Forward – with Sarah Hagen

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Sarah Hagen plays as a forward for FC Kansas City in the NWSL. Prior to that she played for Bayern Munich in Germany, scoring 38 goals in 51 appearances. She has two caps for the US Women’s National Team and played several games for the U23 National Team. In four years at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee she scored 93 goals, which is ninth in NSCAA Division I all-time career records. She was named a first team All American in her junior and senior years.

What kind of a forward are you? What are your strengths?

I’m a taller player so I like to use my size as an advantage. I can hold the ball very well and I connect well with other players, keeping possession for the team. For attacking I am good in the air and remain calm under pressure when it comes to finishing in front of the goal. When I played for Bayern Munich we played in a 4-4-2 formation. Defensively we played side by side as forwards, but in possession my role was to stretch the back line as much as possible and have teammates look to find the high forward, who could lay the ball off to the other forward. My current team previously played a 4-5-1 formation, and as they try to incorporate me into the lineup they’ll probably use me as the 1 (target forward) and another forward sitting underneath.

The large majority of forward work is done off the ball. How did you improve your movement and reading of the game?

I think it comes from knowing what the other forward is going to be doing. A lot of time defenses will adjust to what the players around them are doing, so if you can coordinate with your strike partner you can create space and opportunities for each other. It is important that we don’t run into the same space so you build a relationship and begin to predict how and where they are going to move.

Many of the best forwards rely heavily on one move to beat opponents. Do you have one? What cues do you look for to use it?

I don’t think I do anything crazy, or focus too much on specific moves. If I see any separation from the defender I try to have a quick release. When a defender pressures me and tries to force me in one particular direction I try to get them to switch their feet so that they have to respect me going to the other side, then push it past them. As a taller player my strides are a lot longer, so any time I can get that little bit of a push in front of me I can usually get ahead of them and get the separation I need for a shot or a cross.

Forwards spend a lot of time facing away from the goal. Do you work on your ability to turn and spin off defenders?

Yes, I spend a lot of time on that. And knowing when to take one touch to lay it off to a teammate before spinning off in the other direction. Practicing those moments on your own isn’t straightforward though, as you need someone to pass, defend, and lay the ball off to. Mostly we will do small-sided activities in team training, passing patterns to goal and other routines to work on 1v1 turns.

When you are faced with an opportunity to shoot, what goes through your mind? Do you have a routine? Where are you aiming?

I take a look to see where the goalkeeper is, to see whether she is cheating one way or the other. There are so many different factors that can affect my decision though. For example, here in Kansas City today it was raining when we were working on a lot of finishing. I tried to keep everything on frame, but also low to skip off the turf because it is harder for the goalkeeper to react when it flicks off the wet ground like that. There is a time for finesse and a time for power. Most of the time I shoot with more accuracy than power because I find that that works better for me. If I get into a breakaway situation with the goalkeeper I try not to think too much because when I do it tends not to go how I would like it to. I try to move with pace and remain composed in the moment.

Do you ever relive moments like that and wish you had done them differently?

All the time!

How competitive are you in games and training?

I’m pretty competitive: I don’t like to lose. We just started pre-season two weeks ago, and in one of our first training sessions we were doing small sided games and our coach said next goal wins. Someone on our team had lost the ball and it took a funny bounce behind our last defender. I sprinted back, blocked a shot and cleared it out – which led to a goal for us. Afterwards the coach said that was the first time he had seen a forward put in the extra effort to do that, so I would say I can be pretty competitive! At this level though everyone is going to be that way.

Were you always a forward or did you play other positions?

At U11-12 when I played for a boys’ team I was actually a defender, playing outside back. At U13 I switched to a girls’ team and started playing striker and that was the first time I had done it. There wasn’t position-specific training at the time, so what I was taught was the same as everyone else on the team. We worked on basic skills and finishing, but not specifically as a striker.

How did you practice when you were younger? What did you do outside of team training?

As much as I could I practiced outside of our team training sessions. From the age of 13 I was being driven by my mom to Milwaukee for practices two or three times each week [a 200 mile roundtrip], and we would have games every weekend. My neighbors had three sons and I was always out in the backyard practicing with them. Any time you can be outside at that age you do it, whether it is playing soccer or something else.

How do you deal with the pressure you put on yourself?

It’s hard at times. It’s my goal to make World Cup and Olympic rosters one day and that means that I have to consistently perform well and put myself under the pressure required to do that. I also realize that I play at my best when I am relaxed and composed though, so there is a fine line between demanding too much from yourself and enjoying it. I try to find the right balance between them. When my season ended in September I had the opportunity to go back and play oversees, but I needed a mental and physical break after a long period of playing. Having done that I now feel reenergized training here and my body is fresh. I’m actually enjoying soccer even more than when we left after winning the championship. It’s important for players to gauge how their body feels and treat it accordingly.

How much of a change was it playing for Bayern Munich? How intense is their program?

It was pretty intense, but our team wasn’t fully professional. There were a few players making enough money to just play soccer, but there were others with jobs outside and school. The soccer itself was very professional though. The owners didn’t care what you were doing outside of the club – when it came to game day we had to produce and perform for them. I don’t know if it was the German language that made them seem very disciplined there, but I feel much more relaxed playing here in the U.S.. I can speak a little bit of German and understood the training sessions, but I didn’t take any language lessons which made going out and speaking it in public more difficult.

What impact do you think going over to Germany to play had on your career path and playing level?

I think playing in the Bundesliga helped me with my professionalism. I joined them right after college and it helped me to develop who I am as a player and to have expectations and standards for myself. It also made me more of a technical player. The Germans are very disciplined, so when we worked on a passing pattern we would need to have a crisp pass, not bouncing, on the correct foot for the teammate to receive. We would check away, check to and so on, working on every little detail. Lastly I think it helped me with my understanding of the game. When you get to that level of the game your understanding improves, much like the jump from high school to college play. I learned how to run off other players, what spaces to find and which spaces to attack. During the next off season I’ll probably go oversees again to play, which will further help with my development.

You’ve been a spokesperson for Ultimagoal, recommending their portable goal trainer for players. How often do you use it yourself?

I don’t have one right now in Kansas City, but I was using it in the off season and I really enjoyed what it could do. I didn’t have much space for it in my house and as it was cold in Wisconsin I was using it in my basement, but when I go to the indoor facilities it has more use. It offers something different from what I am used to and the rebounding options that it has have helped a lot. It’s fun to be able to adjust and change the shape so that the ball comes back in different ways over a regular rebound net.

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