Thursday, Jan. 15, 2015 | 2 a.m.
Whenever Salvador Bernal got the ball last fall for the UNLV soccer team, good things seemed to happen.
Bernal led the Rebels to their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1988 to cap his storied collegiate career, becoming the first in program history to be a first-team, all-league selection in all four seasons.
More times than not, he put on a show.
“Every time he got the ball in the attacking third, I was standing on my feet to see what happened next,” UNLV coach Rich Ryerson said. “He is one of the quickest, most dynamic players I have coached. Sal brings that touch to the table that was natural and comes easy for him. He was the most exciting thing we have had at UNLV in a long time.”
Bernal hopes to bring a similar excitement to a Major League Soccer franchise.
He’s in Philadelphia today for the 2015 MLS SuperDraft, but it's uncertain if his name will be called in the two-round, 42-pick draft. If it were strictly based on soccer ability, Bernal would likely be selected.
But because he was born in Morelia, Mexico, and lived there about two years as a young child before moving to Denver and then Las Vegas, he could be classified by the league as an international player. Teams are only allowed eight international player slots on a 30-team roster, and they are usually reserved for those with professional experience or a marquee name to help bolster ticket sales.
Bernal has a work visa through the Dream Act, and the league is expected to consider those players domestic, Ryerson said. But uncertainty could affect where he’s taken, or if he’s taken at all.
“He was raised in America. You talk to him and you are talking to an American kid,” Ryerson said. “That is all he knows. He’s a product of American schools and the American soccer system.”
He was one of 55 players invited to the 2015 adidas MLS Player Combine in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., which concluded earlier this week. Players competed in three games in five days, were tested in the 30-yard dash and other agility drills. They also were made available for 15-minute interviews with teams interested in drafted them.
Toronto and Chicago have shown the most interest in Bernal, said Ryerson, who accompanied Bernal to the event. Bernal also talked with San Jose, Colorado and New York.
“Growing up, I would watch any kind of soccer. I couldn’t get enough,” said Bernal, a forward. “We’d play on the playground during recess and then again when we’d get home. I always hoped I would get the opportunity to show I could be (a professional).”
That’s what he did at UNLV.
In 2013, when he scored eight goals and had 19 points despite missing five games, Bernal became the first UNLV player since 1991 to receive all-American honors. The Rebels were the lone school to seriously recruit Bernal, but he never planned on leaving Las Vegas because his close-knit family lives here. His sister, Susie Bernal, plays for the UNLV women’s team.
Being drafted today wouldn’t be an accomplishment strictly for Bernal. It’s a family achievement.
“My dad got us into soccer. The support they gave me was incredible,” Bernal said. “I don’t know how to pay them back. I did the best I can. Hopefully a team picks me.”
Bernal isn’t the only local on draft boards.
Midfielder Matt Polster, of Palo Verde High, and forward Christian Volesky, a Foothill High graduate and Henderson resident, also took part in the combine and could be selected. Polster is projected to be selected in the top 25 picks.
Both are products of the Downtown Las Vegas Soccer Club, one of the elite soccer franchises in Southern Nevada. It’s the first time players who grew up competing in the local youth soccer system have been invited to the combine and draft.
“These guys representing the city of Las Vegas is absolutely amazing. It’s phenomenal,” Ryerson said. “We’ve never produced one player, now there are three out of 55.”