[UNDER THE MICROSCOPE: Ryan Smith] As a means to improving his team after a rough first season as head coach, Robin Fraser cited flank play as a critical element. To that end, he swung a trade with Kansas City to acquire Ryan Smith, a former Arsenal player who came to MLS two years ago after recurring knee problems had curtailed his opportunities in England. He showed a few flashes once league play started last month but after starting three of the first four games, Smith began on the bench last Saturday against Portland at Jeld-Wen Field.
With the Timbers leading at halftime, 1-0, and the Chivas attack laboring, Fraser sent on Smith, who constantly menaced Portland down the left wing and hit precise crosses that Alejandro Moreno and Nick La Brocca headed home for goals that brought a 2-1 victory.
“Smith was brilliant,” Fraser told reporters after the win. “He came in in the second half and, right from the outset, he put his stamp on the game. He was immediately giving the right backs some problems and was looking to be a threat. In the end of the day, he got two assists and put in a number of good crosses.”
The Opta statistics credited Smith with three successful crosses and 15 successful passes, and that production reflected an inspired Chivas USA performance fashioned on Fraser’s insistence on combination play and intelligent movement. In a preseason interview, Smith had said of Fraser, “Robin reminds me of a European manager. He’s very tranquil but he gets his message across about what he wants from a player in a very intent way. He’s the type of manager you want to play for. His outlook on the game is definitely the way I would like to play as well.”
Smith came into the Arsenal system under Arsene Wenger, but never played for the first team and went on loan to Leicester City. Moves to Derby County and Millwall didn’t turn out much better, as Smith’s knee problems limited his training time and lengthened his recovery needs and a few disciplinary issues cropped up. A loan to Southampton and move to Crystal Palace led to his release and a signing by Kansas City, for which he played 32 games and scored four goals and registered seven assists in 2010 and 2011.
The original Chivas USA offensive plan has been tweaked, since flank play designed to provide service for Juan Pablo Angelis instead intended for others with the Colombian striker sidelined by post-concussion problems. Angel’s absence is one reason Chivas USA had scored just one goal in four games prior to taking on the Timbers and a greater emphasis on attack imposed by Fraser in training sessions.
Before Smith’s entry against Portland, Portland’s centerbacks had been tested a few times without being breached. The two goalscorers nearly broke through on their own in the 20th minute when a Moreno cross aimed for La Brocca was headed away by rookie defender Andrew Jean-Baptiste. Once the service was upgraded, the Timbers were toppled.
Less than three minutes after coming into the match, Smith collected a pass out of the back line from Heath Pearce and, isolated againstLovel Palmer, twisted past him twice to deliver a left-footed cross for which Moreno outjumped Eric Brunner to head into the net. In the 82nd minute, Palmer stayed back as a ball ran to Smith near the touchine, but rather than dribbling as he’d done on the first goal, Smith hit the ball first-time. His curling cross and the head of La Brocca converged for the second goal.
After playing for six clubs in six years, at the age of 27 Smith hopes he’s found a left side of midfield he can call his own. He knows his place on the field. “I used to play, up until I was 16, behind the strikers, a No. 10,” says Smith, who was born in Islington near Highbury, the stadium where Arsenal played from 1913 to 2006. “When I was 16 I was told I was going to play out wide, and from then on, it’s always kind of been my position. I can still play behind the strikers but that’s been my mainstay.”
He’s deeply steeped in Arsenal lore; he knows a bit about Chivas USA’s history and struggle to establish itself in the shadow of the Galaxy. His two assists were the first recorded by the team this season, and he comes from a culture in which results matter more than stadium searches or marketing surveys.
“Obviously the club hasn’t been that successful in recent times, but it’s the players’ jobs – mine included – to change that,” he says. “They employ me. I’m paid to do a job and that’s all I can comment on. I have to show respect for the club, I can just do what I can do.”