By Tim Nash
Way back in 1998, I had been writing about women’s college soccer for nine years and had seen many of the greatest players in the world.
The 1998 was the year the University of Florida won the national championship with senior Danielle Fotopoulos, a freshman named Abby Wambach and another future national team player in Heather Mitts. Angela Hucles was staring at the University of Virginia. Santa Clara featured Danielle Slaton, Aly Wagner and Mandy Clemens. There was a sophomore at Notre Dame named Anne Makinen, a tremendous midfielder from Finland, and a senior named Shannon Boxx. The University of North Carolina featured Cindy Parlow, Tiffany Roberts, Lorrie Fair and Staci Wilson, all U.S. national team players.
When I called Notre Dame coach Chris Petrucelli to ask him who, in his opinion, should be named the national player of the year, he mentioned none of them.
“The best player in the country is at Seton Hall,” he said.
Wait, what? Seton Hall? The Pirates finished the ’98 season 11-6-1.
“Kelly Smith,” Petrucelli said, “is phenomenal.”
For the record, Parlow was that season’s Hermann Trophy winner as the nation’s best player.
Kelly Smith was a striker/midfielder from England whom I had never seen play and wouldn’t see until the summer of 2000 at the WUSA Combine in San Diego. And it was memorable.
As I walked into the field at the Combine, where pro soccer hopefuls were scrimmaging while coaches watched, a player at far end of the field, a left-footed blonde, took the ball cleanly out of the air, turned effortlessly, and ran full speed at a suddenly very over-matched defender. She made a couple of lightning-quick moves and lashed a line drive to the far corner of the net.
“Who the hell is that?” I asked to anyone and everyone around me. Mark Krikorian, who would coach the Philadelphia Charge, certainly knew. He ended up drafting her.
“That’s Kelly Smith,” he said with a smile, and my respect for Chris Petrucelli rose immensely.
Many today know her from a few England games and her TV work at the 2015 Women’s World Cup. But it’s a real shame that injuries robbed most of us from seeing her at her best. She missed most of the 2002 and 2003 WUSA seasons with ACL injuries. With England, she was hindered by a stress fracture in her foot and an Achillies tendon injury. She did make it to 2012 and represented Team Great Britain in the Olympics in which the Great Britain team made a surprising appearance in the quarterfinals after winning all three group stage games. Smith missed the quarterfinal loss to Canada with an injury.
It was during her stints with injuries that Smith’s drinking would get out of hand, a problem she kept well hidden. It started in college, where she scored 76 goals in 51 games for Seton Hall. She said she would drink every day when she was hurt, mostly vodka. After the WUSA folded in 2003, she entered rehab, and in an effort to help other athletes with drinking problems, has openly talked about her alcohol abuse.
Earlier this month, Smith announced her retirement from soccer at age 38.
Born in 1978 in Watford, England, Smith played on boys teams growing up, cutting her hair short so people wouldn’t notice she was a girl. When they found out, they wouldn’t put their team on the field against a team that included a girl. She was never told she wasn’t good enough to play with the boys, only that girls soccer was “rubbish.” As her career progressed, she was ridiculed and insulted because she was a woman playing a “man’s sport.”
She joined the national team at age 17, when England wasn’t a contender in Europe, let alone the world. But a player like Smith was the type that forced English soccer fans to admit that women can indeed play and play very well.
Hope Powell, the former England coach, called a player who only comes around once or twice in a lifetime. Mia Hamm raved about her technique. April Heinrichs, another player whose time came too early, said she would be an automatic pick for any U.S. national team if she were eligible.
What she accomplished for women and girls, especially in England, is enormous. Today, she’s interested in coaching and is pursuing licenses so thankfully her impact on the game will continue.