Whitecaps FC striker Omar Salgado (Joseph Armand)
Joseph Armand

Salgado in running for first MLS start vs. Columbus Crew

Omar Salgado has been forewarned.

With the recent schedule congestion and an injury to regular starting forward Atiba Harris, the 17-year-old Vancouver Whitecaps FC striker has been given advance notice that he could be seeing a lot more of the field moving forward.

"'You might be a big role player in the next few weeks,’” Salgado said that his head coach told him recently. “Hopefully, I get to play [Saturday].”

The No. 1 overall pick of the 2011 MLS SuperDraft will find out just hours before kickoff whether he will receive his first career MLS start in Saturday night’s regular season match against Columbus Crew (4:30 pm PT; Watch live on Sportsnet ONE, Bell mobile devices, online at MDL, and listen on TEAM 1410).

The Harris injury, coupled with a one-game suspension for Designated Player Eric Hassli, has opened a starting spot alongside Camilo that is expected to be filled by Chinese forward Long Tan or Salgado.

If it comes down to familiarity, Salgado would be the obvious choice. He’s the roommate of the 22-year-old Camilo and Salgado’s Spanish helps him communicate with the Brazilian.

There’s also the issue of size. Salgado's 6-foot-4 frame makes him taller than Tan and provides Vancouver with height against a Columbus Crew side that is typically dominant in the air with the likes of center back Chad Marshall.

Whether Vancouver manager Teitur Thordarson opts for Salgado or Tan, he’ll be getting a player with minimal MLS experience. In their roles as subs off the bench thus far, neither has compiled more than 20 league minutes.

“Ever since I got here, [Thordarson] said he was going to be careful with my minutes and be careful what I did every single game and practice,” Salgado told MLSsoccer.com. “They’ve been taking care of me and helping me through the process every day. I’m patient and waiting my chance.”

To think that Salgado was not even supposed to play until he turned 18 in September due to a FIFA regulation that does not permit players under 18 to play first-team matches in a foreign country. An exemption was issued to the El Paso, Texas, native in late March since Canadian clubs form part of the American professional soccer league. That waiver has changed Salgado’s day-to-day outlook.

“Not being able to play was a little frustrating,” he said. “Now, it’s really time to show what you have and get your starting spot and earn your opportunity with the team.”

Salgado, a United States U-20 international, knows exactly what’s in store should he take the field. Vancouver has established a unique playing style just a few games into the club’s debut MLS season.

“There’s a whole lot of pressure once you get on the field,” he said. “Two of the games I’ve gone in, we’ve been losing and as soon as you get on the field, it’s about trying to do something. Everyone is screaming. They want you to be the one to run the most. When you’re a rookie and this young, they expect you to do everything. 'Run 90 minutes with all you got.' It’s tough, but it’s a learning experience.

“I had never been used to the way [Thordarson] plays. It’s pressure the whole game and it’s running, running, and running.”

In order to secure a result in Columbus, Vancouver will likely have to outrun the Crew, who are unbeaten in their last five matches and feature the fourth stingiest backline in MLS and arguably the league's top defender in Marshall. 

The matchups don't get much tougher for MLS forwards. If Salgado was hoping to make a statement to the league, there would be no better time than Saturday.