LOS ANGELES â€” The Vancouver Whitecaps loaded up on defence Friday at the MLS SuperDraft, acquiring plenty of character in the process.
UConn’s Jake Nerwinski, taken seventh overall, adds depth to Vancouver’s troublesome right fullback spot. And he will clearly bring energy and determination to the task at hand.
“Jake Nerwinski is the engine of the team,” said UConn teammate Kwame Awuah, who was selected 16th overall by New York City FC. “I’ve known him for four years and he’s always been the same type of player. Even as his name started getting more out there, he still put his head down and worked hard.
“And I really appreciate someone like that because he wasn’t all finesse. He was more the grinder, he just got the job done. He wanted to win.”
The two Huskies co-captains roomed together for 2 1/2 years. “He’s like my brother for life,” said Awuah, a Toronto native.
Nerwinski, a 22-year-old New Jersey native, roomed with Canadian Cyle Larin â€” now a star forward with Orlando â€” as a freshman.
The Whitecaps took lanky New Zealand centre back Francis deVries (Saint Francis University) in the second round (29th overall).
“I asked both kids how they slept last night and I think they got about four hours between them,” said Vancouver coach Carl Robinson. “It’s a nervous time for these young boys but we’ve done our homework.”
“Hopefully mine and my coaches’ job now is to help them develop on the field as well. Because they are good people,” he added.
Robinson, never one to sit still, said he attempted unsuccessfully to move up in the draft.
Nerwinski suffered through some injuries during his junior year at high school and did not have a scholarship when he went to UConn.
“The coach told me the first day I was probably going to be a practice player,” he recalled.
Nerwinski changed that by collecting two assists after coming on for 10 minutes in a pre-season game.
“I kind of took that as a challenge and I used that as energy to see what I could do,” he said.
The six-foot 175-pounder ended up starting 15 of 21 games as a freshman and earned a scholarship. He started all 60 games his next three seasons.
“I’m so proud and happy for Jake, he epitomizes what a UConn player should be,” Connecticut head coach Ray Reid said in a statement.
Nerwinski placed in the top five in all three performance tests at the pre-draft Combine. Out of the 71 players at the Combine, Nerwinski was one of just two to finish in the top five in all the tests.
Nerwinski joins newly acquired Sheanon Williams at right back in Vancouver. “He’s going to compete from Day 1,” said Robinson of his first-round pick.
The six-foot-three, 190-pound deVries has had quite the journey getting to Vancouver. His father is from the Netherlands and his mother from Switzerland. They moved to New Zealand 25 years ago because it was his mother’s dream to live there.
Francis opted to come to the U.S. to combine playing soccer with getting an education, saying he has not regretted the decision.
“Along the way I discovered that there’s much more to life than soccer,” he said. “North America’s been great to me in terms of what it’s been on and off the field.”
That included the kindness of the people he had met, including the parents of his college teammates who opened their doors to a foreigner, he said.
“After going through all of that, you have to say ‘Wow, what’s my job now? My job is to do the same as them and give back to all the people as much as I can.”
DeVries, 22, also said being able to get a college education showed how fortunate he was compared to many others.
“Now the chance to make the most of it and give back to various people.”
DeVries joins a Vancouver centre-back corps that includes recent draft picks Christian Dean, Cole Seiler and Tim Parker as well as veterans Kendall Waston and the currently injured David Edgar.
Robinson, who still has some high-profile gaps to fill, is taking the Whitecaps to his native Wales for training camp. The Whitecaps will use the Welsh national training centre to prepare for early CONCACAF Champions League games.
Vancouver is slated to play pre-season games against Cardiff City, Oxford, Bristol City and possibly Swansea City â€” the club Robinson grew up supporting.
Follow @NeilMDavidson on Twitter
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press