VANCOUVER, B.C. – It's been a "dream" rookie season for Vancouver Whitecaps defender Jake Nerwinski.
The former UConn standout was selected 7th overall by the Whitecaps in the 2017 MLS SuperDraft. At the time, Whitecaps head coach Carl Robinson said he felt Nerwinski was MLS-ready. That soon became evident.
After playing in the knockout stages of the CONCACAF Champions League, Nerwinski battled with veteran Sheanon Williams for the starting right back role in Vancouver. The pair exchanged MLS starts before the rookie won out.
Wednesday night saw him play in his first-ever MLS playoff game, and as Vancouver's 5-0 rout of San Jose played out, it allowed Nerwinski to have a moment to take it all in and think how far he's come so far this year.
"Yeah, after the fifth goal, I was like, this is pretty special," Nerwinski told MLSsoccer.com. "We made history. We did it in pretty awesome fashion. It was great to see the fans going crazy, coaches jumping around, hugging each other. It was a really good experience."
Nerwinski's made 20 MLS appearances this first season, and counting, putting in a string of impressively assured performances that have seen him mentioned as a Rookie of the Year contender and even a future U.S. national team player. Like most things this debut season, the 23-year-old is just taking it all in his stride.
"It's always nice to get noticed and it's always nice to get appreciated," Nerwinski said. "I'm not really worried about it that much. I'm more about the team and seeing how far we can make it. The U.S. team, that's always been a dream of mine.
"That's kind of the end goal, to play for your country. I think everybody really wants to do that and if that happens in the future, great, and I'm going to keep working to get to that point."
Nerwinski's attacking style of play fits perfectly with how Robinson wants his fullbacks to play in his formations. The 'Caps coach wants all his players to play freely, but drums in the need for defensive responsibility.
That freedom has seen Nerwinski thrive, contributing five assists on the year and posing a real danger for Vancouver up the right wing.
"I used to play forward before I was right back," Nerwinski explained. "I only played one year at right back before going to university, so I was always an attacking guy. Even though I was pushed back to defense, I was like, I'm going to still keep going forward and make this position my own.
"The game is evolving where these outside backs are getting into the attack more and I think it's great and I love doing that. But I know it's defence first. I have to say that!"
Wednesday's first taste of playoff action has left him wanting more. He’ll likely get it on Sunday when Vancouver’s Cascadian rivals the Seattle Sounders hit town for the first leg of their Western Conference semifinal series (8:30 pm ET | ESPN in the US | TSN1/4, TVAS2 in Canada).
After limping into the postseason on a three-game winless skid, Vancouver have suddenly rediscovered their offensive spark. Nerwinski feels the path ahead, which will now see the Whitecaps on the road in the second leg of the conference semifinal and possibly championship round as well, suits the team perfectly.
"I think maybe not winning the conference was a little bit of a blessing in disguise," Nerwinski said. "We got this home game and we've got this momentum going into Seattle now. We've got another home game coming up. It's definitely huge. We're a good road team and we're good at home, so I think we can do some damage."