A thought occurred to rookie midfielder Othaniel Yanez as he exited off Interstate 71 and headed toward Crew Stadium for the season opener on Saturday.
“Oh man, I used to pay to come to these,” he said
This time, instead of Yanez and his friends from the University of Louisville shelling out money to watch the Crew, he got paid to watch his new employers defeat Toronto FC.
It may be a while before Columbus' 61st pick in the MLS SuperDraft sees the field in a league match, and Yanez knows that trying to crack the lineup of the back-to-back Supporters’ Shield winner will not be easy—“You can’t expect to come to a team like this and get playing time right away,” he said—but the fact he is even on the roster might come as a surprise to many given his late-round selection.
A surprise to many, maybe—but not to Crew coach Robert Warzycha.
“We can talk about whether he’s a sleeper or not probably a few months from now,” he said. “I like what I see so far. The games that he played in the preseason he did very well. Every time he was on the field, the team was playing better. That’s why we decided to keep him.”
Yanez drew Warzycha’s attention at the MLS Combine in January when he scored on a 45-yard strike that maxed the "wow" factor at 10. Warzycha, who was known to powder a shot or two in his Crew playing days, was impressed—to a point.
“A goal’s a goal,” he said. “He took a nice shot and scored. More than anything he covered a lot of ground. He’s always in the path of the pass. He worked very hard in the preseason.”
Still, Yanez was a long shot to make the team. Of course, fellow 2010 draftee Shaun Francis was selected by the Crew with the second-to-last pick—two spots behind Yanez—and he also made the roster, but it was under different circumstances: The Crew were looking for a left-footed defender, and Francis filled the need.
Yanez, however, was coming to a team with an already stacked midfield.
“It was difficult training sessions at first,” Yanez said. “I’m starting to get the hang of it now. The speed of play is what you notice right away. Everyone is making better decisions. It’s an all-round better game.”
When it came time for the media relations staff to finish the media guide before the final roster was set, Yanez didn’t make the cut. The other four draftees did.
Yanez, Francis and eighth-overall choice Dilly Duka were signed to contracts. Bright Dike (12th) was cut to make room for Yanez, and Kwaku Nyamekye is finishing school at Harvard.
Warzycha knows Yanez’s growth will be stunted if he doesn’t get games. That’s why Friday’s exhibitions against Marshall and Michigan State are important for the midfielder.
“We have some talent here, and hopefully he can learn from the guys on the field,” Warzycha said.
Yanez has made up for lost time before. He didn’t take to soccer until his mom signed him up when he was 10-years-old. Prior to that, wrestling, football and baseball occupied his time while growing up in Moreno Valley, Calif.
When he began getting offers from colleges, he took to heart advice from his club coaches.
“They said, 'If you want to stay in Southern California, the harder it will be to find a school or get a scholarship,'” Yanez said.
Louisville head coach Ken Lolla sold Yanez on the Cardinals, and the 22-year-old became the program's MVP in two of his four seasons there, scoring five goals and adding four assists in 66 games. One of the Louisville assistants at the time happened to be a former Crew veteran Brian Maisonneuve, so a connection was made.
“I talked to him about playing pro, [though] not really in Columbus,” Yanez said. “He wanted me to come out and train [with the Crew] in the summers, but I usually stayed in school—and the few weeks I did have off, I’d go home to see the family.”
Yet he often made the 205-mile trip north on I-71 to see the Crew's home openers, the most recent being a 0-0 draw against New York in 2007.
Now he has a better seat and doesn’t have to worry about parking.