Plenty of potential in Vancouver's pick
BALTIMORE -- Up the podium strode not just 6 feet, 3 inches of an El Paso, Texas, striker this afternoon, but a handful of other things too.
Once U.S. U-20 team member Omar Salgado, who was drafted first overall by the expansion Vancouver Whitecaps in Thursday's MLS SuperDraft, made it to the dais, Salgado's ear-to-ear smile belied his own happiness, but also the general sense of surprise that he was the first man up there. The University of Akron's more MLS-ready Perry Kitchen, a defensive player, and Darlington Nagbe, a forward, had been expected to go first and second.
Instead, there stood the freckly, fresh-faced Salgado, who is considered to have the most potential of anybody in his class.
"I'm surprised," Salgado told ESPN.com, having worked his way through the media horde, his suit, white Vancouver jersey and scarf, and demeanor still unblemished. "I didn't think I was going to go No. 1. I knew they had interest in me but I had no idea. I was just sitting there."
In addition to a big surprise, Salgado's selection also represents a victory for American soccer, and a bit of a coup for MLS.
When he was 15, Salgado abandoned the national U-17 residency program in Bradenton, Fla., after just two months, opting for the youth academy of Chivas Guadalajara in his parents' native Mexico instead. After spending several months in Mexico's national U-20 camps, he seemed lost for the American cause, another promising player who preferred to entrust his development to Mexico.
But after a year and a half south of the border, where he'd struggled to adapt, Salgado returned, joining the U.S. U-20 and forcing a departure from Chivas.
"They were mad," recalls Salgado. "I had to leave Chivas because Chivas is all-Mexican. They told me, 'If you play for the U.S. your chances with the first team are going to be slim, the controversy is going to be too big if we put you on the first team.'"
Salgado was unperturbed. "I was born and grew up in the U.S., I like the U.S. a lot better so I just decided for the U.S.," he said.
It may seem hyperbolic, but the move of a 17-year-old prospect from one U-20 program to another may forebode a shift of respect for the U.S. youth program for prospects torn between two countries they're eligible to play for.
This potential effect is reinforced by the scouting report on Salgado, who is thought of as a future starter on the senior U.S. team.
"He's the youngest player in the draft, the youngest player in our U-20 team and the player with the most upside and the greatest potential of everyone here," said U.S. U-20 head coach Thomas Rongen. "You look at a guy with a 6-3 frame, a lefty who can score goals with the fact that he also scored very high in the sprint and the agility tests and he's still growing and will get stronger and faster."
"I'm very high on this kid he will get to the [senior] World Cup," Rongen said. "He's already a good player who just turned 17. He just has incredible upside."
Vancouver was similarly impressed. "We saw a lot of potential that we thought if it was fulfilled he could be a very, very good player," said team president Bob Lenarduzzi.
"I think Omar has everything to succeed and become a top player," echoed head coach Teitur Thordarson.
There will be a learning curve, certainly. Competitive minutes have been few and far between for the nomadic Salgado, and he's still far removed from his ceiling.
"He needs to get better in the air, he's not a clinical finisher yet but he creates chances every game. If he's put in the right environment -- because he comes from El Paso and has never been coached properly -- he'll get a lot better," said Rongen. "He always gets a lot better in just the seven or 10 days when he's with us."
"I learn very fast," said Salgado. "I just have to be training every day -- I haven't been doing that. I'm only 17. I can grow a lot, I can get a lot better. Right now I'm good, but I can get very, very good."
While he'll be training every day, when Salgado can make his professional debut isn't yet clear. According to FIFA rules, a player under the age of 18 can't play in a country in which his parents don't reside. That would include Canada, even though it shares a league with the U.S., where Salgado's parents live. The club is hoping for a waiver from FIFA. Failing that, it'll have to wait on Salgado until he turns 18 in September.
Seeing him on one of its fields will be a another boon for MLS. After practicing with the U-20s, the Whitecaps, the Portland Timbers and D.C. United, Salgado had also spent a week and a half with the English Premier League's Everton, which immediately expressed an interest in signing him.
But the MLS was again able to keep a prospect and potential No. 1 pick away from Europe's ever-present lure, even if Salgado hopes to play overseas eventually, aiming for Real Madrid as his ultimate employer.
Finally, Salgado also represents potential unfulfilled: that of his father.
"My dad has always been on my back, every game, every training," a laughing Salgado said. There was more to it than a father projecting his ambitions on his son, though. Eduardo Salgado had been quite a player himself. "He was going to play for Club América in Mexico, but his dad didn't let him play professionally. He wanted him to work."
The decision might have been a good one, because Salgado's father now owns a chain of dollar stores in Mexico and deals in real estate in the United States. But the elder Salgado was going to make sure that his son made the most of his talents.
"He was very eager for me to play," said Salgado, "he wanted to live the experience through his son, I guess." That's part of the reason Salgado skipped playing in college, something he did consider. "I thought I might not get another chance to go pro."
Whether Salgado really wouldn't have gotten another chance is doubtful. What isn't is that he has all the potential necessary to have a great career. One that could yield enough satisfaction not just for one ambitious man, but maybe even for two.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.