I didn’t know much about Ryan Smith until just this year when Kansas City signed the little-known (to me, at least) London winger.
All I knew about Smith was that he had an Arsenal pedigree and a left foot…both of which came out when I watched Smith terrorize D.C. United to open the season by setting up a goal and knocking one home.
More recently, I had the chance to watch Smith dominate his flank against Manchester United in an exhibition game in Barbecue Town. For me, it was a statement game for Smith as he vanquished Manchester United’s potential starting right back in Brazilian Rafael.
For those that talk of the dearth of talent in the domestic league, they should see the way Smith moves, the product of a world-class club academy education.
That said, the knock on Smith has been his fierce dedication to a certain brand or style of soccer and his inability to help his team rise up the league table since he’s consistently on the training table.
A week ago, I had the chance to have a very laid-back chat with Ryan Smith and learn a little bit more about his zeal for the beautiful game, his one major frustration in what has otherwise been an enjoyable first year in MLS and how he played more games at the age of 8 then most children do before college.
Smith was more than accommodating with his time, but seems to be carrying–for good or bad–a chip on his shoulder from his past expectations and lower level club ball in England as well an attitude of nobleness.
Those words aren’t a negative though. Just like a striker believes he should take every shot, every penalty kick, Smith believes in a certain, perhaps pure, way to play the game and his abilities that cater to it.
It’s an opinionated view and one that made Smith a very interesting interview subject.
TSG: OK Ryan, thanks for the time. Let’s get started. The most recent game I saw of you was when you destroyed Manchester United’s Rafael. What was that like?
Ryan Smith: Well, I just played my game.
In Kansas City, it was a great day for the team.
TSG: Was it fun growing up an Arsenal fan and former player and then playing Manchester United…in Kansas City of all places?
Smith: Of course, there is that rivalry; it transcends.
For the Wizards against Manchester United though, it was really just another game and I’m glad we just won even though it was just an exhibition.
TSG: So how’s your first season going in MLS?
Smith: It’s going okay. I thought it was would take time to adapt, but I hit the ground running and it’s good ever since.
TSG: How do you rate KC’s playoff chances coming down the stretch here? What does the team need to do to have momentum building into the playoffs?
Smith: Continue as we’ve been. We’ve been a very organized side the past few weeks, and if we keep playing as we’re playing then we’ll be in.
TSG: What’s your biggest adjustment to the game here in the States? After your Arsenal time, you hopped around a few different lower leagues in England and didn’t really find your grove it appeared.
Smith: For one, after I left Arsenal I was promised to play for some clubs that played attractive football.
And I felt like I was lied to.
TSG: I’m sorry…lied to by whom?
Smith: Derby County [Smith played at Derby County in 2006-2007]…the manager there said they would play attractive football and that’s the only way I know how to play. And that’s not how it was. I couldn’t adapt to the long ball game, basically running around like a headless chicken trying to win tackles and chase the ball in the air.
Obviously, being raised at Arsenal–which the way we play a certain style–and I didn’t find that from the point of playing at other clubs until joining here. I didn’t find a home.
Managers knew I couldn’t adapt to that style (physical, long-ball) so they didn’t have faith in me.
For me, football is meant to be an attractive game. It doesn’t have to be, but the spectators want to be entertained and that’s the type of game I believe in.
Unfortunately in England I didn’t have the chance to play that way. I’m playing well here and that’s because the style fits.
TSG: Let me see if I can translate: so you would say the leagues below the Premiership (the Championship, League One, League Two) are more knock-around-the-ball physical leagues, and is what you are saying that you chose to come to Kansas City because they played a more flowing game of football?
Smith: Yeah, I spoke to Peter (Kansas City coach, Peter Vermes) and Peter echoed my thoughts and beliefs, and it wasn’t a tough decision after that.
If it wasn’t going to be MLS, it was going to be a team in Europe outside England.
But gladly, I chose KC.
TSG: That’s really interesting. So give me some other teams that subscribe to the style of football that you like.
Smith: Arsenal, Barcelona, Madrid…pretty much the top teams that like to keep the ball, keep it on the floor and not knock it straight up in the air. Brazil…
For me to play in a style where the ball is being smashed over my head–that’s just not my thing.
TSG: And that’s why you chose MLS and the Wizards?
Smith: Like I said, I spoke with Peter. I did some background on the club and chose here.
TSG: And you would say the Wizards have your style?
TSG: Baring that in mind, a few KC fans wanted me to ask you this question: There appears to be times during this year that you are visibly frustrated on the field. Are you frustrated? And if so, what are you frustrated about?
Smith: For the people who want to know…for me getting fouled every single game and fighting to be fit every single game and nothing being done about it is a frustration.
There’s not a game that goes by where I don’t get hacked like real bad. If the fans knew I was in the treatment room or doing rehab every day after training, that’s my frustrations.
It’s just part of the game, but I want the referees to give more protection. It seems like I’m overlooked for some reason.
There was a challenge in the L.A. game (The Wizards beat the Galaxy, 2-0 at HDC) where I honestly thought it would be a red card. The guy tried to take me out of the game.
And nothing was done about that. It’s been like that from the start and it’s really frustrating because my future is at risk.
TSG: Have you taken your concerns to management? Have you seen any improvement?
Smith: To be honest, I haven’t seen any improvement. But in all fairness our team captain Davy Arnaud said after the game to a reporter and to a referee as well that, “every single game I (Smith) was being really badly challenged and nothing ever gets done.”
Well, then someone else in the game–and there is no grudge against no one here and I’m just using it as an example–Landon Donovan was pushed in the game, nothing major, and straightaway the ref gave a foul.
And I’m getting absolutely annihilated on the field and nothing gets done.
I have to fight to be fit for the game from Monday…so that’s why I’m frustrated.
TSG: So how’s your fitness headed into the stretch run?
Smith: Well, the first game of the season I got tackled in the ankle and I’ve been carrying that all year. I’m trying to keep myself fit everyday. I’m not 100% fit, but I’m available always to play for all the games.
TSG: Let’s compare MLS to some of the football leagues overseas. How would your rate MLS versus, say, Chamionship League (the league right below the Premiership) football?
Smith: MLS, undoubtedly better…and that’s not a personal disrespect to the Championship.
For me, that’s a fact. You have people like Donovan, Thierry, Marquez, Beckham, Buddle and Findley and it’s undoubtedly better. There’s no comparison.
TSG: Who’s the best defender you went up against so far?
Smith: That guy from L.A.
TSG: Centerback or outside?
Smith: Franklin…for sure. Sean Franklin.
TSG: Yeah, we agree. You could say we’re pretty big fans of Sean Franklin at The Shin Guardian.
Smith: He’s absolutely great.
TSG: Okay, skipping around. You’re eligible to play national ball for the States. Would you consider playing for the Yanks?
Smith: I would. I definitely would.
I just. You know, it’s up to the guys at U.S. Soccer. If they came and asked me, I’d definitely consider, but I’ve heard nothing yet.
TSG: Would you consider reaching out them, even if it’s against protocol?
Smith: I’m putting it out in interviews that I’m eligible. That’s the best way to do it.
But to be honest, I just want to focus on KC right now and if there’s a phone call one day, great!
TSG: So, back to your Arsenal upbringing, you grew up just a few blocks from Highbury. Any Arsenal favorites? Any jerseys?
Smith: Arsenal is like a religion, you can’t not see a jersey when you walk around. My favorite player was Ian Wright [Arsenal striker and England World Cup player] and I had his jersey and that was when I was 3.
TSG: American football in Texas or Pennsylvania I imagine is kind of like growing up a footballer in London–and then you get a ticket to the Arsenal academy. Tell me what it was like getting into the Arsenal academy. Actually, start before that. Do your scouts watch games when you’re seven- or eight-years-old?
Smith: What happened back then…I was playing for a local team…it just so happened…I was at West Ham before I was at Arsenal for a year. Well when I was eight-years-old I was playing for my local team, my county team, my district team and a few more…
TSG: Wait…did you go to school or did you play like 10 matches a weekend?
Smith: In England we do it different, it’s not school football and stuff like that. I played for my local team on Sunday, another one on Fridays…and once I was finished with those guys, I played for my borough and for London.
When I was on my local team a scout from West Ham saw me there and signed me for two years, but then Arsenal came in and paid a release for my services a year early and I went to the academy.
TSG: How old were you?!
Smith: 8- or 9-years-old.
TSG: I mean…do you get burnt out…do you have any clue what’s going on?
Smith: At such a young age, you’ve got so much energy, you don’t think about if you’re playing too many games.
Then when you get to age 11, it cuts down dramatically and you’re restricted to three practices a week and one game on the weekend.
TSG: Are your friends asking you for your autograph at that point?
Smith: (Laughs)…no, not at that point.
TSG: Okay, well now what’s your desire to get back to play at Arsenal? I know you’re focused on KC right now, but what’s the next step? Where do you want your career go?
Smith: I believe in myself and I’ll never give up. I’m always going to fight to get better. I try to get better everyday.
People say I was fiery at the start of the season when I got tackled. Now, I expect to get tackled and I’m doing better managing that.
I know that if I keep going and I’m doing something right and people will notice.
I can’t really think of Arsenal right now.
But if you’re successful here, like people like Jozy, then teams will be watching. So I just need to keep myself focused and fit.
TSG: How do you compare coming from England and playing in urbane London to going to KC? Culture shock?
Smith: Well, yeah.
The closest place you can compare to London here is NY. It’s quite similar.
You come to KC and it’s not a big city. I’m used to packed streets and a busy pace.
In KC it’s really laid back. It’s nice because it’s quiet and I get to relax more.
First city I can sleep in in the daytime.
TSG: This is a segment we always end player interviews with. Basically, we ask you about your teammates and hope that you are in giving mood.
Smith: Ha. Hit me with it.
TSG: If you were about to be in a bar brawl, God forbid, which teammate would you want with you?
Smith: Korede Aiyegbusi, because he’s a stand-up dude.
TSG: Funniest player?
Smith: Maybe…Josh Wolff.
TSG: Didn’t see that one coming–thought JC…Jimmy Conrad was going to tie that one up.
Bigger gaffe on the season: Harrington’s April Fool’s “Maxim” spread or Kei Kamara’s goalmouth hijinks?
Smith: It’s gotta be Mikey. Now that you reminded me I’m going to go in tomorrow and give him a hard time again about it.
TSG: Which players dresses most aggressively?
Smith: Without a doubt Kei Kamara. He looks like a rainbow when he comes into practice.
TSG: Too funny.
Hey Ryan, thanks for the time. Really appreciate it. Anything to add that we missed?
Smith: I really want the fans of KC to know they’re great and I love playing for the team. Since the start of me being here, I’ve felt so welcome.
And I’m glad to enjoying my football again.
Ryan Smith, Kansas City Wizards.
* Update: Thanks to @lowellfield for pointy out a faulty photo and reader KJ for pointing out some errors. Fixed and better for it.
* Thanks to TSG readers Eric Howell (Followtonians Podcast) and GeorgeCross for their question contributions to this piece.