VANCOUVER—Jake Nerwinski is still adjusting to life as a rookie in Major League Soccer — which has meant, in part, getting used to a lot of waiting.
After making his professional debut for the Vancouver Whitecaps in a CONCACAF Champions League match in February, the 22-year-old right fullback played in another game in the tournament, followed by two early season MLS starts. Then came an eight-game stretch — over more than two months — in which he didn’t make an appearance.
“Coming off of college, playing every game, it is a little challenging,” said Nerwinski, who started 75 of 81 games with the University of Connecticut and was selected seventh overall by Vancouver in this year’s MLS SuperDraft.
Last Saturday, Nerwinski made his first appearance since April 8, playing a full 90 minutes in a 1–1 draw against FC Dallas at home and putting up what coach Carl Robinson called a “strong” performance.
The reason for his selection was grim: Two days before the match, right fullback Sheanon Williams was arrested and charged with assault in connection with an alleged domestic incident. The MLS veteran was suspended indefinitely by the league soon after.
While the charges facing Williams were stayed by the Crown on Monday, Williams, 27, has voluntary entered the league’s Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health program. It will be up to the team, once Williams has been cleared by program officials, to decide how to handle the situation, though Whitecaps coach Carl Robinson indicated this week that he was willing to bring the player back into his fold.
“Yeah, 100 per cent,” he said when asked whether Williams has a future with the club.
Whatever happens in the long term, and despite the circumstances, Nerwinski knows he has to make the most of the opportunity to play. The Whitecaps face expansion team Minnesota United this weekend, and Nerwinski is set to make back-to-back MLS starts for the first time in his professional career.
“What Robbo always says is, ‘The next guy up. Whatever happens, happens,’” Nerwinski said of the opportunity before him, adding: “That’s my position and I’m jumping in.”
It helps, too, that Robinson has confidence in the youngster.
“Sometimes with these young players you’re better off throwing them in and not thinking too much about it,” Robinson said. “And I think he got stronger as the game went on. He used his qualities.”
Robinson pointed out that Nerwinski made one or two errors versus Dallas, though he also noted that the same could be said of a lot of his players most weeks.
While Nerwinski has only made three appearances in the league, his teammates will tell you the lack of experience hasn’t been so obvious.
“He doesn’t make a lot of the mistakes that most rookies make,” said MLS veteran Andrew Jacobson, a natural midfielder who has dropped into the back line with central defender Kendall Waston sidelined due to injury. “He’s obviously still finding his way as far as his attacking, but I think defensively he’s right in there.”
Central defender Tim Parker, who has taken Nerwinski under his wing, praised the former Huskies captain for his resilience going up against difficult players.
“I thought Jake did really well,” Parker said. “I think going up against the wingers that Dallas has isn’t an easy task. They’re quick and they know how to move, and I think that was a good test for him. He did well with it, so we’re looking forward to more of that kind of play from him.”
For Nerwinski, Parker has been a source of support as he adjusts to life in the league. It helps that they hail from the same general area: Parker is from Hicksville, N.Y., while Nerwinski calls Lawrenceville, N.J., home.
“Tim’s been helping me a lot,” Nerwinski said. “He’s a young guy too. He’s been in it recently.”
One of Nerwinski’s biggest takeaways from a life in professional soccer thus far has been the importance of relentlessly training as though you might be called upon at any moment, even if you aren’t.
“If you skip a beat, these guys are going to run right past you,” he said.
It’s a lesson that’s paying off now that he’s getting another shot to play — just as his teammates insisted he would.
“They’ve just said, you know, keep your head down, keep playing, you’re going to get your chance,” he said. “And my chance has come, and hopefully I can make the most of it.”