BALTIMORE - Coach Caleb Porter’s Akron juggernaut landed with a boom on the MLS SuperDraft on Thursday, launching seven players into Major League Soccer, a record five in the first round alone.
But that didn’t mean they took the top prize. Zips phenoms Darlington Nagbe and Perry Kitchen were the stone cold locks to punch their tickets to expansion sides Vancouver and Portland at the top of the draft pecking order, but it was a relatively soft-spoken and lanky teenager from El Paso, Texas, who turned the most heads as the biggest surprise of the draft.
Was it such a stunner that US U-20 rising star Omar Salgado went high in the draft? Hardly. With enough chops to be courted by Chivas de Guadalajara, Salgado was expected by most to land somewhere early in the first round, perhaps slipping deeper into the mix while teams scratched their heads about what they would actually get by taking the youngest kid in the draft pool.
[inline_node:326471]But few saw this one coming. Vancouver opted to pass on Nagbe and Kitchens - two players most expected could contribute this spring - to use the first overall pick on a 6-foot-4 kid obviously still learning to find his feet and his form, kind of like a young deer genetically programmed to jump a fence if he could first just learn to stand and walk.
Salgado is a project for Vancouver, there’s no doubt about that. The Whitecaps brass said as much after they made the surprise pick, with president Bob Lenarduzzi telling reporters in the aftermath that Salgado would earn some minutes in 2011, but that this was more about that wonderfully ambiguous commodity that gets thrown around all the time during draft season: huge potential.
Salgado’s pick isn’t part of some greater youth movement, and it’s not indicative of a growing trend that MLS is getting younger with their top picks. If anything’s true, it’s just the opposite. Each of the past five seasons teams have opted instead for a player at least somewhat tested in the college ranks, names like Danny Mwanga, Steve Zakuani, Chance Meyers, Maurice Edu and Marvell Wynne.
The last team to really to go this young was Real Salt Lake, who made perhaps the most curious pick of the last decade of draft days, taking a 16-year-old kid named Nikolas Besagno instead of players like Brad Guzan, Ugo Ihemelu, Drew Moor, Hunter Freeman or Michael Parkhurst.
Besagno, as most RSL fans will tell you right on the spot, did not pan out. The team showed some patience and kept him on board until November 2008, but eventually cut their losses and moved on. Besagno, for his part, flirted briefly with the Seattle Sounders soon after, but has effectively fallen off the MLS map and is read about more often in articles like this one.
Will Salgado share the same fate? Who knows. He’s certainly more of a proven talent already, having made six appearances with the US U-20s, including last year’s Milk Cup in Northern Ireland. He’s also trained with Everton and a few MLS teams (including Vancouver), and boasts the physical size to make a dent in some MLS back lines when he finally gets his time.
And that seems to be the final word when it comes to the surprise pick of 2011: patience. He officially stole the show and was off the main stage in seconds on Thursday, offering only a quick glimpse into the future of the Whitecaps and perhaps even MLS.
We’ll have to wait and see what the rest of the full picture will look like.