Jake Nerwinski didn’t want his chance to come about this way.
The rookie defender for the Vancouver Whitecaps earned two starts during the club’s busy early schedule before settling in on the bench for head coach Carl Robinson, patiently waiting his turn while learning the ropes of the professional game.
But that was all turned on its head last week when veteran right back Sheanon Williams, directly above Nerwinski in the pecking order, was arrested and charged with assault in relation to an alleged domestic incident.
With Williams suspended by Major League Soccer, Nerwinski started a 1-1 home draw with FC Dallas and looks set to once again get the call Saturday when Vancouver visits expansion Minnesota United in the first-ever meeting between the clubs.
“What Robbo always says is, ‘Next guy up,’” the 22-year-old shared after training this week. “Whatever happens, happens, and you have to do anything you can to help the team.
“That’s my position and I’m jumping in.”
The assault charge against the Williams was stayed on Monday. The Crown has one year to re-file charges.
The 27-year-old voluntarily placed himself in the league’s Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program. He will be remain suspended from competition and team activities until doctors complete an assessment and release Williams from the program.
MLS said in a joint release with the Whitecaps that it plans to continue an independent investigation, but Robinson indicated Tuesday that Williams still has a future with the club.
In the meantime, Vancouver is comfortable moving forward with the seventh pick in this year’s MLS SuperDraft on the right side of defence.
“Sometimes with these young players you’re better off throwing them in and not thinking too much about it,” Robinson said of Nerwinski’s performance against Dallas. ”He got stronger as the game went on.”
A native of Lawrenceville, N.J., Nerwinski said he’s leaned on a number of teammates early in his career, including fellow defender Tim Parker, who grew up roughly 150 kilometres away in Hicksville, N.Y.
“Going against the wingers that Dallas has isn’t an easy task,” said the 24-year-old Parker. ”It was a good test. He did well.”
The announcement of Williams’ arrest came after news also broke last week that two minors had been charged with sexual assault in relation to a separate incident involving some male youth players at a Whitecaps’ training facility in Burnaby, B.C.
Robinson said he was proud of how his team performed against Dallas with all that was happening around them.
“We dug in and got a really valuable point against a very good team,” said the coach. ”They deserve a lot of credit for that.”
The Whitecaps (6-6-2) sit sixth in the Western Conference, three points up on ninth-place Minnesota (5-9-2) with two games in hand.
Apart from having Nerwinski in for Williams, Vancouver is also likely to go with Andrew Jacobson, usually a midfielder, alongside Parker at centre back for the second straight week with Kendall Waston nursing a hip injury.
The Whitecaps’ long list of walking wounded also includes midfielders Christian Bolanos (shoulder) and Nicolas Mezquida (ankle), but Yordy Reyna (foot) was a full participant in training this week and could make his debut soon.
All five of Minnesota’s wins in the club’s inaugural campaign have come at home, including Wednesday’s 3-2 victory over the Portland Timbers that snapped a three-game losing streak.
Saturday’s hosts have conceded a league-high 36 times — an average of more than twice per game — which is good news for a Vancouver attack that mustered just two shots on target against Dallas.
“It’s going to be a new environment for us,” said Robinson. ”If we can compete like we did (last weekend) and maybe be a little bit tidier in the final third, then we’ll get our chances.”
Of the Whitecaps’ 19 goals, eight have come on set pieces — including the equalizer against Dallas — a rate of 42 per cent that leads MLS.
“We’ve worked hard on set pieces this year because we were very low in the last two seasons,” said Robinson. ”It’s been a big factor for us (this year). Can we tidy up in other areas? Yeah, of course we can.”