VANCOUVER — The Vancouver Whitecaps won’t get the chance to look at the player considered the top college talent in the U.S. at this weekend’s Major League Soccer Player Combine.
The decision by Darlington Nagbe to skip the combine in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., won’t stop the Whitecaps from thinking about taking the junior striker from the University of Akron in next week’s MLS SuperDraft.
“It’s disappointing he’s not practising but it’s not something that would deter us from considering him,” Bob Lenarduzzi, the Whitecaps president, said Thursday.
“There is a lot that has gone into this draft. We have done our due diligence on the scouting side.”
Nagbe had seven goals and 13 assists in leading Akron to the NCAA college title. For the Whitecaps, who currently have just one forward signed, his scoring ability would be an attractive asset for the team’s first season in MLS.
Having a young talent bubbling with potential would also help in team marketing.
Nagbe’s absence from the combine has led to some speculation that the Whitecaps have already told the native of Lakewood, Ohio, they will take him with the first pick.
“Untrue,” Lenarduzzi said in a telephone interview from Houston, where he was waiting to catch a flight to Florida.
The Whitecaps also have the option of trading their No. 1 pick for an established MLS player.
“It would take a lot for us to give up that pick,” said Lenarduzzi. “At this point we are going into it with an open mind.
“We want what we perceive to be the best player available.”
The combine is a chance for the Whitecaps to get a good look at the players who could be future stars for the team. It’s an opportunity to evaluate U.S. college stars, along with some young international players, prior to Thursday’s SuperDraft in Baltimore.
“The NCAA has been the tool of building your roster for years,” said Tom Soehn, the Whitecaps director of soccer operations. “That’s how we build, from the bottom up.”
Around 70 prospects will attend the combine, which runs from Friday to Tuesday. The players will be divided into four teams and play a series of games before scouts and management from MLS teams.
The Whitecaps have four picks in the three-round SuperDraft. With just 11 players currently under contract, Vancouver will be looking to stock talent.
“I think what you look for is the best available,” said Soehn. “Right now I think we are looking for the best available in the hopes we can add about three guys from that draft that potentially could be steady, long-term pieces for us.”
One of the five international players is John Rooney, the 20-year-old younger brother of Manchester United striker Wayne Rooney.
Rooney played in the youth system at Everton before making his professional debut for Macclesfield Town, a lower division club. He trained with the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers last fall.
Among the college stars expected at the combine is Justin Meram, a strong forward from Michigan with a nose for the ball; Michael Farfan, an attacking midfielder from North Carolina; A.J. Soares of California, who is considered the best senior prospect in central defence; and Anthony Ampaipitakwong, a midfielder from Akron with a playmaker’s instinct.
Four players eligible for the SuperDraft — Perry Kitchen, Zac MacMath, Omar Salgado and Zarek Valentin — won’t attend the combine because they are in camp with the USA under-20 national team.
The Whitecaps elected to pick first in the SuperDraft after winning a coin toss with the Portland Timbers, who also will make their MLS debut this year.
Vancouver received the eighth pick in the draft by trading defender-midfielder Nathan Sturgis to Toronto FC. The Whitecaps had taken Sturgis in the expansion draft.
Vancouver will also pick 19th and 37th.
“All the way until our second round pick . . . I feel like you can still come out with a pretty solid guy,” said Soehn. “Whether he makes it or not, that still is up in the air.”
Lenarduzzi said Vancouver has already received some feelers about their draft pick.
“The interest in the pick will start to heat up the day before the draft and the day of the draft,” he said.