Salvador “Sal” Bernal’s life and soccer career are full of significant firsts. After graduating from Clark High School he was the first in his family to go to college, where he was a four-year starter and collected almost as many accolades as goals.
He’s the first UNLV soccer player to earn all-conference honors four years in a row. In 2013, he was named an All-American, the first at UNLV since 1991. And in January he became the fourth UNLV player drafted to Major League Soccer—the first since 2008.
In December, Bernal was one of 55 players in the country invited to the MLS combine. But when the draft arrived in January, he fell to the fourth round, the 70th pick out of 84. The path was filled with divots, including questions about his national designation.
His family immigrated to the U.S. when he was 7. Bernal is a Mexican citizen, but he has a work permit under deferred action for childhood arrivals (DACA), a program initiated by President Barack Obama that granted temporary legal residency to some young immigrants brought here illegally. MLS teams are allowed to sign a limited number of international players, and it’s unclear if 22-year-old Bernal will be classified as domestic or foreign.
He has dreamed of pro soccer since he could run, ignoring critics who said the 5-foot-6, 135-pound forward relying on speed and dribbling skill was too small to excel even at the college level. As a freshman he vowed to secure an invite to the combine and win a Western Athletic Conference championship before his Rebel career ended. UNLV won the WAC championship this year after a thrilling shootout, but Bernal was sidelined with a knee injury that forced him out of the final five games. He recovered in time for the combine, and did enough for Toronto FC to call his name.
Where did your passion for soccer come from? My Dad. He’s the one that basically made me love soccer. He was never a professional player or anything, but he loves it and soccer was always on TV in our house. Of course soccer is huge in Mexico, and I remember growing up in Mexico playing at preschool recess.
How did your immigration status affect you? I didn’t really know anybody else that was in the same situation except my sister. My teammates knew. I could trust them. I see them every day and they always had my back. It’s hard to tell people, still is, even after DACA. I don’t really like putting it out there, but [DACA] has given me the opportunity to do things I couldn’t before. When I got my work permit it was a huge load off my back. My family would get involved with some of the immigration actions, but at the same time it was scary to go out and do that stuff. We supported it, but at the same time didn’t want to put ourselves out there.
What was the wait during the draft like? The third and fourth rounds were done via the MLS website. I wanted to be by myself, and I was in a friend’s dorm room with my laptop. As I kept refreshing the page and watching the names go by I started to think, ‘Am I going to get drafted?’ Things start running through your mind. When I finally saw my name, I just sat back in my chair and took it in. ‘Wow, I actually got drafted.’ That’s a moment I’ll always remember.
Do you think the question of your classification affected where you were picked? It did stop people from drafting me. I’m not from here, and we don’t know if I’ll be considered an international player. That was the big issue. Usually they want to use those spots on the older, more experienced players. I was worried about that, but I’m glad Toronto drafted me and gave me an opportunity.
Looking forward to camp with Toronto FC, what do you want to work on? The MLS is all about physicality, so they like big guys … I feel like I need to build some more muscle, but what I’ve been doing has gotten me here so I won’t change that. I’ll learn and become a better athlete and become a better soccer player. I’ll keep working hard and leaving my heart out on the field.
What advice would you give kids who have their own athletic dreams? Whatever your mind is set on, keep doing it no matter the obstacles. Even if people tell you, ‘You are too small; you won’t be able to play.’ I didn’t care about that—that motivated me to shut those people up. Don’t listen to them, just believe in yourself, work hard and if you really have your mind and heart in it, you’ll achieve it.