09/13/2011 05:11 EDT | Updated 01/12/2012 02:21 EST

First MLS season been steep learning curve for Whitecaps' rookie Salgado

BURNABY, B.C. - During a recent practice Vancouver Whitecaps rookie Omar Salgado tried to use his speed to take the ball around a defender, only to be dumped onto the grass by a hard tackle.

An angry Salgado scrambled to his feet yelling and waving his arms. Veteran goalkeeper Joe Cannon shook his head as he watched the drama unfold in front of him.

"You're not going to get that call in a game either," shouted Cannon.

It's been a season of hard knocks for Salgado, the tall, lanky striker who was just 17 when the Whitecaps selected him first overall in the MLS SuperDraft.

So far this year Salgado has spent more time watching from the bench than playing. The El Paso, Texas, native also took a punch from a teammate during a practice scuffle.

"It's been difficult to adapt," Salgado said Tuesday after a long practice. "Sometimes there are good moments, sometimes there are bad.

"The hardest part about it is the mental aspect and trying to keep your motivation up."

Salgado has appeared in 13 games this year, playing 487 minutes. He's started five times and scored one goal.

In Vancouver's last seven games he's seen just six minutes of action as a substitution.

It's been a difficult transition for a player used to being a star at every level he's played.

"I wish I could play two or three games consecutively and get the rhythm of the game," said Salgado, who celebrated his 18th birthday on Saturday.

"It's difficult to play every four or five weeks. Trying to make a difference in 90 minutes is a little difficult coming straight in from training every day."

Tom Soehn, the Whitecaps acting coach and director of soccer operations, said Salgado is a work in progress.

"It's a long-term project," said Soehn. "In a lot of respects he's got more minutes than a lot of teams would have given him.

"He's got a world of upside. If he continues to work hard he can reach that upside."

Cannon, who has spent over a decade playing MLS, said Salgado may need an attitude adjustment to reach his full potential.

"Omar has a good future ahead of him if he wants it," said Cannon. "That to me is probably the biggest question mark with him, to find a worth ethic within him to propel him to the next level.

"He needs to learn to channel his energy. I would like to see him work on his game a little more. With him, it's just a matter of knowing what to do and him making the choice if wants to do it."

Dark haired and soft-spoken, Salgado carries only 170 pounds on a six-foot-four frame. At times this year it was clear he was a boy playing with men.

"I played in Mexico for two years," he said. "It's a lot more physical here. They (MLS players) are a lot bigger, stronger, a lot faster.

"It's more direct. I had to adapt fast and I'm still trying."

Salgado shrugged off the skirmish in practice.

"You get frustrated, you lose your emotions," he said. "It happens. It's just practice."

With long, gangly legs and skinny arms, Salgado sometimes looks like a colt when he runs. He needs to add weight and muscle.

"Being so young he hasn't quite grown into his body," said Soehn. "There are days when he's a bit awkward.

"That will come with footwork and stuff we are doing outside of the game."

It's also easy to forget Salgado is still a teenager. He can't even legally join his teammates for a drink after games.

"I don't know what to talk to them about and we don't have much in common," he said about the older players. "It's difficult to go out with them and do what ever."

Salgado has dual American and Mexican citizenship. His mother is American and his father Mexican. Living in Canada has been a new experience.

"I get lonely a lot," he said.

Salgado has travelled a route similar to many Canadian hockey players.

He was 15 years old when he left home to join Mexican giants Club Deportivo Guadalajara, better known as Chivas or Goats. As a member of the reserves, he scored seven goals in 10 appearances.

Salgado trained and travelled with the Mexican U-20 side in March and April of 2010, but decided play for the United States U-20 national team at the 2010 Milk Cup international youth tournament in Northern Ireland.

He also trained with English Premier League side Everton FC.

The Whitecaps raised some eyebrows when they took Salgado with their first pick in the SuperDraft. The common consensus was Darlington Nagbe, a 20-year-old forward from the University of Akron, was the best player available.

But the Whitecaps like Salgado's potential.

Soehn said Salgado has the fundamentals of a great player.

"For some guys the game comes easy and I think it comes easy for him," he said. "Holding the ball, the ability to create space for himself and nose for the goal, those are the qualities he does well.

"Now he has to translate that into a system . . . and to be part of a team."

The Whitecaps have struggled in their inaugural MLS season. Their 4-13-10 record is the worst in the league.

Having a young talent like Salgado is one reason the Whitecaps believe they can be better next season.

"I want to make a difference," said Salgado. "That's what I am aiming for.

"Hopefully next year I'm not too young for anybody here and I can play. That's all I am looking for."