SMITH EMERGING AS PHOENIX LEADER
With the likes of Nicholas Anelka and Didier Drogba leading the line for Shanghai Shenhua and Qatar set to host the second World Cup located in Asia the Asian soccer market is growing at a rapid pace.
Still, the Asian soccer world seems very distant from that of North America. One American who is growing quite familiar with the Asian set-up is 26 year old Alex Smith.
Following his birth in Windsor, England Alex moved to the United States at one year old. Smith would excel in the High School ranks and eventually land at Centenary College of Louisiana. After one year at Centenary, Smith would transfer to Southern Methodist University for whom he scored 13 goals in 2004.
Smith's performances were enough to earn him trials back in his native England with lower division clubs Walsall FC and Shrewsbury Town FC. When the trials proved unsuccessful, Smith prepared for a return to SMU only to have the NCAA rule that the trials violated his amateur status, making him ineligible to further participate in collegiate competition.
Faced with the decision of effectively ending his soccer career or forgoing the rest of college, Alex chose the latter and signed on with FC Dallas. After two uneventful years at Dallas, he grew disillusioned with soccer and quit.
"I was at FC Dallas and didn't really get any game time, and it just didn't work out, it just wasn't the right time for me. It put such a sour taste in my mouth that I quit (soccer) for about two and a half years." Smith told Yanks Abroad.
After dropping out of soccer, Smith finished his college education and moved to Australia "on a whim" where he started playing again in local leagues.
Playing for Fraser Park in the New South Wales League, one level below the top flight A-League, in 2010, Smith scored 11 goals in 20 games. The next season he moved on to Sydney Olympic for whom he scored 10 goals in 14 matches, and the eyes were watching. A-League side Gold Coast United made a move for the striker, but cut him during preseason training. Having had another whiff at a professional career, Smiths resiliency proved to be higher the second time around.
"If something like that happens you've just got to pick yourself up and move on. Stuff like that's happened to me throughout my career, so it was really nothing new to me." Smith recalled
Smith's attitude was rewarded when Wellington Phoenix, the A-Leagues lone New Zealand side, snatched him up to fill in for Mirjan Pavlovic.
Though Smith had always played up top in an attacking position, Wellington coach Ricki Herbert liked the work rate he provided and tried him in a holding midfield role alongside former New Zealand Captain Tim Brown. Brown was counted upon to do most of the offensive duty out of the central midfield, so for the first time ever Smith found himself playing a primarily defensive role.
Coming on as a replacement piece, Smith stayed an influential part of the squad, playing 24 of 27 games, including Wellingtons final 15. Smiths contract was finally guaranteed through the end of the season last January.
"It's been a roller coaster these last ten months with the whole Gold Coast shamozzle, and then signing with Wellington, I think I signed five contracts last season." Smith discussed
Although their was interest from other sides, Smith chose to stay with the club that gave him his first real chance to break into top flight soccer, signing a deal with Wellington through the end of next season.
"There was a bit of interest from a few other clubs, but in the end I stayed with Wellington." said Smith.
Smith's loyalties paid dividends when Brown retired at the end of last season. Herbert wasted no time in identifying his first potential replacement for the midfielder, handing Smith Brown's old number for the upcoming term.
"He (Brown) actually retired last year, and I actually have just taken his number." Smith said, "If that's any indication of what the coach wants me to be doing it's to be pushing forward a little bit more, still playing out of midfield, but pushing forward and creating chances and goals as well."
The departure of Brown leaves Smith a likely candidate to be an integral member of Wellingtons midfield core this upcoming season, one which Smith believes will see the side continue off of last year's success.
"I think we can definitely finish in the top four and be pushing for a top two spot." Smith said of his teams prospects from the upcoming term, while he is also excited about his added responsibility, "I'm really looking forward to the season and not having the limits on my abilities going forward, so I get to concentrate on that a bit more this year."
As Smith is beginning to make his impact on Asian soccer, it's quality is making an impact on him. "I quite like the way the Asian players play, they keep possession and work for each other." Smith said of the continents players.
Smith also mentioned which leagues he particularly admired.
"The J-Leagues the benchmark for over here." the midfielder said of the Japanese league, but he also went on to mention the Chinese League and Korean League as other locations outside of Japan which would potentially interest him in the future. "I'd like to crack into the Asian market at some point in my career. Football's growing quite a bit over there and I think I'd fit in well over there," he said.
For next season however, he's still in Wellington which he believes is "the best place for me to be in the next year and maybe even after that."
Smith took a minute to reflect back on the his hiatus from soccer, "At that point, I didn't think I was meant to be playing football." but the rising player quickly changed his tone, "But I guess what's meant to be just kind of has a way of happening, so you've just got to roll with the punches and I'm here now through a lot of hard work and luck and circumstance."
Alex Smith isn't making any grandiose projections about the path his career may take, nor does he seem concerned in doing so. Rather, he has the air of someone who really appreciates the position he's in, getting a second chance to come back and play the game he loves for a living. With his attitude, he'll always be sure to come out on top, as "what's meant to be just kind of has a way of happening."