Players such as Shaun Saiko could certainly make it in MLS. (Benjamin Massey/Eighty Six Forever)
Matt Watson, Brad Knighton, and probably Etienne Barbara. The Vancouver Whitecaps have already signed two players from the North American Soccer League and are on their way to a third. We shouldn't be surprised, as Martin Rennie has pulled this before: when Rennie joined the Carolina Railhawks from USL-2's Cleveland City Stars he brought three players with him then, too. Nor should we be worried, as all three players contributed to an improved 2009 Railhawks season but were let go when Rennie found superior replacements.
Bringing players from the second division to the first is good strategy, so long as you pick the right players. Just ask the Philadelphia Union, who stand to make a mint selling USL-1 alumnus Sebastien Le Toux to Bolton. An average NASL team is worse than an average MLS team, but there's a lot of talent down there which for one reason or another hasn't made it up yet.
The Whitecaps are getting closer to a full roster, but they're also carrying a bit of deadwood that could be released if better names came along. Young is better, obviously, and given our oversupply of international players candidates should be at least American and preferably Canadian.
Do I have any suggestions? Of course I do.
When you're looking for a former second-division player who's going to make it in MLS, there are a few things you should prefer. Ideally the player will be young and not have spent too long riding second-division buses: there's the occasional Josh Gardner who's a lifer in the second division and goes onto a good MLS career (we hope Matt Watson will be one of these), but for the most part the best-adapting players haven't spent more than a couple years in the second division.
MLS discovery lists are confidential and the NASL doesn't release contract details so I can't tell you how easy it would be to get most of these players, but history shows a motivated MLS team can usually find a way.
The first name on my hit-list is FC Edmonton midfielder Shaun Saiko. Saiko ticks every box on my list. He's Canadian (more than Canadian: born in my hometown of St. Albert, Alberta which automatically makes him the best player in the world). He's just 22 years old. He benefited from first-class youth tutelage at Middlesbrough, who at the time were in the English Premier League, and while he didn't make the grade he's done excellently with Edmonton. Saiko was far and away Edmonton's most valuable player in 2011, leading the team's scoring charts with nine goals and five assists from midfield. Don't let the gaudy scoring numbers fool you, as he made his bones during his U-20 days as a tough, tenacious defensive midfielder and, while he was cheating for offense in Harry Sinkgraven's system, his accurate tackling and focus in his own half still stood out last season.
As he never played in MLS he would certainly be subject to a discovery claim and, if a claiming team has any sort of brain, they'd be trying pretty hard to sign him up. Saiko would immediately slot onto my bench just behind Gershon Koffie and have a good chance of pushing Koffie out. Yes, Saiko is that good. Fans who watch him have wanted him to get called up to the full Canadian national team despite playing at a deep position for his country and being a young second-division player. Trust me, if you get the chance to watch a few archived FC Edmonton games, keep your eyes on number six. I would do backflips if the Whitecaps could add him. One Saiko is worth ten Watsons.
Saiko has two interesting teammates. Central defender Paul Hamilton will be familiar to a few Whitecaps fans: once upon a time the 23-year-old Calgarian was part of the Whitecaps Residency system. A 6'0" central defender without a tonne of athleticism, Hamilton's been highly successful his first year in the NASL. However, NASL forwards tend to be a cut below MLS ones and Hamilton is prone to the occasional brainfart. Hamilton's agility and generally good positioning would allow him to provide good balance on a defense that's short on quick players, but he shouldn't be a priority target. Forward Kyle Porter joined Edmonton midway through the season and still scored seven goals. He looked very good with the 2010 division two Whitecaps and probably deserves an MLS chance, but considering Vancouver's overwhelming depth at forward and on the wing he could find a better team.
If I were going to sign one NASL defender it would be Richard Martinez out of the Puerto Rico Islanders. Martinez is 23 years old and a Puerto Rican international but would count as American in MLS terms. Last year was his second in the NASL and he was omnipresent in the good Islanders defense. He's a small but quick right back, a position where we could use the help, and is certainly a couple cuts above a SuperDraft pick. Martinez did have a trial with the Seattle Sounders last year but was under contract to Puerto Rico and the Islanders reportedly made negotiations difficult. That may not have changed, as Martinez is a core player for both club and country, but it would behoove the Whitecaps to take a look.
My last suggestion is Minnesota Stars FC midfielder Neil Hlavaty. Martin Rennie is nodding along right now: he coached Hlavaty with the 2008 Cleveland City Stars. He's had a weird career. After leaving Cleveland, Hlavaty moved to Östers of the Swedish third division (no, really). He did well, was poached by Jagiellonia Białystok of the Polish first division, did less well, and returned to North America and the NSC Minnesota Stars.
Hlavaty's an undersized attacking midfielder who shoots well from distance and bagged six goals last term with a Minnesota team that didn't exactly shoot the lights out. Hlavaty is definitely under contract for 2012 as the Stars announced they picked up his option, but his natural flair for goal and a couple very good second-division seasons makes me think he'd be worth a look.
None of these players are sure things. That's the nature of taking a player to a higher level. For every player who picks up in MLS right where he left off in the NASL, there's a Ryan Pore who dominates one division but moves up and can't score in a brothel. But these are risks worth taking, and the Whitecaps should catch more than just old Railhawks in their NASL scouting.