Jake Nerwinski’s rookie season was full of positives. With 22 appearances in MLS, and four more in the CONCACAF Champions league, Nerwinski had established himself as Vancouver Whitecaps starting right back by the summer, and it was a position he never gave up.
But the year ended on a sour note for the 23-year-old, as a late first half injury saw him carried off in the Whitecaps 2-0 playoff loss in Seattle. His season was over, and so was the ‘Caps one shortly after, leaving disappointment on various levels all round.
“Obviously I’d have loved to have stayed in,” Nerwinski said. “It was upsetting for me personally and for the team as well. We fought hard all season. We got to that point and the end product just wasn’t quite there.”
There’s been a lot of turnaround in Vancouver during the offseason, with 13 players moving on. There’s a good chance that there will be more. Nine have come in, and again, expect more soon, and the signs are already there during the recent preseason matches that the squad is stronger for it, especially in the attack.
Nerwinski feels that there could be some exciting times ahead this year and he’s looking forward to seeing how it all plays out once the season gets underway on March 4th at home to Montreal.
“It’s been a lot of change but I’m excited to see what this group can do,” Nerwinski said. “That was one of the things I was talking to my parents about [in the offseason]. They were like ‘who are you going to be hanging out with?’, well everybody’s gone now. But the guys here are great guys so I’m just excited to get going.”
The disappointment from how last season ended still lingers, but so does the success that the team had before falling just short. The challenge for Nerwinski and the Whitecaps now is to build on those successes. To bounce back better and stronger this year. And the young right back is very confident they will.
“We want to build off what we did last year,” Nerwinski feels. “We didn’t accomplish exactly what we wanted to. We were in a good spot towards the end of the year but maybe we didn’t get those little bounces that we needed, those goals that we needed. It’s definitely something good to build off of and with the guys coming in and with the guys we already have, I think we can definitely do some damage this year.”
New faces and the vaunted possibility of a new system. Although there’s been very little evidence of such a change over the course of the preseason, in part due to available personnel and in part due to a rethinking of how best to fit in all of the ‘Caps key pieces, don’t be surprised to see Vancouver go with a three at the back formation at times this year.
Whether it ends up as a three at the back or the tried and tested four at the back, Nerwinski knows he’ll be utilized as an attacking wingback or full back. It’s a role he loves and one he feels makes the most of his talents.
“In college, we played some 3-5-2 for my first two years,” Nerwinski revealed. “So I am comfortable with that. I think [being an attacking back] benefits me a lot. I like to go forward, I like to push forward, and I like to run. I’m fit enough to do that.”
Nerwinski spent the offseason rehabbing back in his native New Jersey, missing the ‘Caps first couple of preseason outings as he got himself back up to full fitness. He’s now raring to go, but did allow himself a little bit of time to take a step back and reflect on what he’d achieved during his first season as a pro.
“Yeah, a little bit,” Nerwinski said. “I was basically rehabbing my entire offseason, so I was kind of worried about getting back to today and being 100% healthy. But I got to talk about it with my family and friends a lot, which was nice, but I kind of got right back into the physio and made sure I was good.”
In many ways the first season is the easy part. No-one expects too much from you as you find your feet in the league, especially when you have a MLS veteran ahead of you in the depth charts. The second year is always harder, and when you’re coming off an excellent rookie season and were in some ‘Rookie of the Year’ conversations, the expectations rise greatly.
Nerwinski knows he’s far from the finished article and has areas of his game he needs to work on. That last match in Seattle was a good demonstration of that at times. That’s what his focus is on this season and he’s not even entertaining any talk of a ‘sophomore slump’, no matter how often media members and pundits might mention it to him, which he knows they will.
“No, not [thinking about that] at all,” Nerwinski stated. “Everybody’s kind of talking about that. I see that going around in the media and all that, but I’m not going to let that bother me at all. I’m going to do what I did last year and build off what I did last year and see if I can improve those little spots where maybe I wasn’t so good or confident.”
Nerwinski’s performance in his rookie season, where he was second on the team in assists, saw the young defender earn a contract extension last month through 2019, with options for 2020 and 2021, as Vancouver try to lock up some key pieces of their defensive core.
“This means a lot,” Nerwinski admitted. “This club has put a lot of trust in me. They said at the beginning of last year, if I showed well, played well, they would reward me, and I’m thankful to all the coaches and my teammates. I love this city, I landed in a great place, and I couldn’t be happier. I will continue to give my all for Vancouver.”
The tables have turned for Nerwinski this season. He’s no longer the unknown quantity. Opposition teams may feel they have the read on him and he’s the guy, the potential starter, that the back ups are gunning for. Not that he feels he has that starting right back sewn up as his own.
And nor should he, because he faces some stiff competition this season for that spot.
Both of the Whitecaps SuperDraft picks were full backs. Justin Fiddes is primarily a left back, but can play on the right, and Lucas Stauffer is a right back and has impressed over the course of the preseason. The two of them are Nerwinski from a year ago. Keen and hungry to not just earn a MLS deal, but to get first team minutes and challenge to be a starter.
Then you have Thursday’s addition of Sean Franklin, the ten-year MLS veteran right back, who heads to Vancouver as a free agent with two MLS Cups to his name.
That’s some battle for Nerwinski and he’s looking forward to every minute of it.
“They’re probably going to have the same mentality I had last year,” Nerwinski said. “I have to make sure that I’m not too comfortable, because I’m still fighting for a spot. No spots are guaranteed. I’m excited to have that competition back.”