[MLS SUPERDRAFT] Omar Salgado, at 17 the youngest player available in Thursday's SuperDraft, was picked No. 1, by expansion club Vancouver Whitecaps. A year ago, the native of El Paso, Texas, looked headed toward a career in Mexico.
His father, Eduardo, says that Omar never had a different toy than a soccer ball.
“As soon as he started moving his feet, he started kicking the ball,” said Eduardo, who grew up in Mexico with aspirations to be a professional soccer player.
Eduardo, at age 16, was invited to join Club America, wh ich had spotted him playing for Chihuahua’s state team in national championships. But Eduardo’s parents, who had immigrated to Mexico from Spain, fleeing the Spanish Civil War, had other ideas.
“My father wanted me to come to the United States for college,” said Eduardo. “He didn’t allow me to be a soccer player. … But I give Omar my full support. I wanted Omar to be a professional player since the day he was born.”
Eduardo first went to college in Kentucky and New Mexico before settling in El Paso, where he met his future wife, U.S.-born Mexican-American Annalu. Omar was the first of their three children and, as his father had hoped, Omar embraced the game of soccer and excelled from a young age.
Now 6-foot-4, Omar was always tall for his age and played in higher age groups throughout his youth career. He played club ball for the Texas Fire and in 2008 was invited to the U.S. U-17 Residency in Bradenton, Fla. But he left after a couple of months to join Chivas Guadalajara’s youth program at age 15.
During his 18-month stint with Guadalajara, Salgado trained with Mexico’s U-20 team. But U.S. U-20 coach Thomas Rongen stayed in pursuit of the lanky, skillful striker.
“When the U.S. national team called, I realized I wanted to play for the United States,” Salgado said. “It was where I was born and it just felt right for me.”
Eduardo says he left the decision on which country to represent up to his son: “All I said was do what your heart says.”
Playing for the USA meant an end to Salgado’s career with Guadalajara, whose Mexicans-only policy he’d no longer meet.
Not only were his Guadalajara coaches disappointed, the Mexican press criticized Salgado's decision to opt for the USA. But he has no regrets -- especially after being the top pick in the MLS SuperDraft.
“I had a good, valuable experience at Guadalajara,” he said. “But I prefer to play for the United States and in MLS. It was the right decision. With Guadalajara it would probably take a lot longer for me to get into the first team.”
Omar scored in his debut for the U.S. U-20s, a 1-0 win over China in the 2010 Milk Cup in Northern Ireland that the USA won. Last summer, he trained with the Vancouver Whitecaps, whose attempts to sign him were thwarted by FIFA rules that forbid players under 18 from moving to a pro club outside their country.
In fact, Salgado will not be able to play for the Whitecaps until he turns 18 on Sept. 10 unless FIFA grants an exemption for his unique situation: i.e., playing for a foriegn team in a U.S. league.
“We’re hoping that he can play right away, but even he can’t, it’s something we accept and he accepts,” said Vancouver Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi. “What we see in Omar is huge potential. He holds the ball up well. He’s great running at people. He’s pre pared to take people on. And he is a goalscorer.
“He’s likely to get minutes this season but we’re looking at a player we want to develop and maximize his potential.”
Salgado will be busy even if he's ineligible for MLS until September. The U-20s' qualifying tournament for the U-20 World Cup takes place in April. The U-20 World Cup is July 31-Aug. 20 in Colombia.
“We didn’t go into the draft looking positionally,” Lenarduzzi. “We were looking for the best player to use our No. 1 pick on. The fact that he’s a striker is just a nice coincidence.”