CHRISTOPHER MCCOLLUM - Wednesday, November 9, 2011
After a wild year that has seen its share of ups and downs, American forward Alex Smith is finally settling into the A-league with Wellington Phoenix.
YA recently caught up with England born, Texas raised, Australia playing, New Zealand living Alex Smith. The former Southern Methodist University standout and FC Dallas experiment has had a tumultuous career beginning with eligibility issues while in college, that forced him off the team due to losing his amateur status.
After bouncing around America for a couple of years, his travels finally took him to Australia where he began working his way up through the lower leagues until finally breaking into the A-League with Gold Coast United. After signing a one year deal, it finally seemed that Smith might be getting the break he had been looking for all along.
However, during pre-season training, manager Miron Bleiberg asked Smith to accept a contract buy-out, as the team was trying to sign Dutch striker Maceo Rigters but lacked an additional foreign roster spot. Having just been situated in the Gold Coast with his fiance, it was a tough move, but Smith accepted it and harbors no ill feelings to Gold Coast or Bleiberg.
"It was a bit tense at the time, I know that that's football and things like that happen all the time, pretty much every day around the world. It was just a little bit of an unfortunate situation where I was injured, just coming back from injury, and this whole thing kind of happened three weeks before the season. But no, I don't hold any ill will towards anybody. That's the business that I choose to partake in - I was just kind of unsettled, my fiance and I. We just got a place on the Gold Coast, she's working out of Sydney and I'm living in New Zealand. One day, it'll all settle down and I can look back on it and laugh, but I don't hold any ill will towards anybody."
Wellington Phoenix is a relatively new team, only in their fifth season of operation, but it has captured the hearts and minds of many of the avid sports fans from New Zealand, as their only A-League team.
While not as popular as the All Blacks, New Zealand's National Rugby Team, it's quickly gaining in popularity as soccer carves out a foothold in the traditional rugby nation. Their national team's surprising quality in the 2010 World Cup has surely spurred on fan support, and it's showing with the Phoenix.
"There's a big fan group called the Yellow Fever that have been really great, you know. They average 9-10,000 to a game [total attendance] so it's pretty good over here. In terms of support, they really don't have too many other sporting teams in New Zealand, and this is the biggest football club in New Zealand. Definitely a lot of support, got a great stadium. Like I said, they've been great, they've been sending messages welcoming me, and just the whole experience has been great so far."
Smith's adventures through Australia's second division were thought to be over with when he was picked up by Gold Coast from Sydney Olympic, but the buy-out forced him to explore other options, which ultimately led him to re-uniting with the Sydney side in Australia's second division, the NSW Super League.
After the 2010/2011 season came to an end, Smith received a call from Wellington who were interested in acquiring his services. Finally, after six years of professional play, he got an opportunity to play first division soccer, which came as an obvious relief.
"[I felt] more relief than anything, because I thought I was finally there with the Gold Coast and then that kind of got taken away, and then I finally found the club in Wellington and there was just more relief than anything else, and it's just a very fast league. You've got to be in pretty good shape and play one, two touch and get rid of the ball before somebody takes it from you, so yeah, more just relief to finally get my chance and I think I've been taking it."
Unfortunately for the well-traveled Smith, his contract was limited to being an injury replacement for a 10 game stretch until December 5, but Smith is confident that he will continue to see A-League action once he becomes a free agent. While his hope is to remain in Wellington, there is also interest from other teams after seeing him play.
"I'm fairly certain I've been playing pretty well, and there's been quite a bit of talk about me staying around which I'm happy to do. I love the club, so hopefully they put a little bit of faith in me and keep me around until the end of the season or even longer. As of right now, December 5, I'm a free agent and there's been a little bit of interest from other A-League clubs, so I'll just have to keep playing and wait and see."
One of the positives about Smith is that he's a very versatile player, which draws a lot of looks from coaches in the A-League as he can play well at many positions on the field. While naturally a midfielder, he has seen most of his time up top as a striker, and there is even talk of him playing right back. This kind of versatility will surely pay off in keeping him in the A-League for the future.
"I've always prided myself on being able to play different positions. Forward is probably not even my true position. I'm more of an attacking midfielder. I usually have to play forward if I'm with a team that doesn't have anybody who can score goals, so I have to go up there and score the goals. But I really prefer playing that kind of central midfield role, whether it be defensive or attacking."
Smith has found himself amidst a solid core of players, which include New Zealand National Team regulars Tim Brown, Mark Preston, Tony Lochhead, Ben Sigmund, and Leo Bertos, as well as several former Australia U-20 and U-23 players. Because of this core, Smith feels that the team is headed in the right direction, getting to where they need to be through building team chemistry rather than going on spending sprees for new players.
"The new owners aren't going to be spending much money to bring new players in, so I consider myself pretty lucky to be here. But this team, the core players have been around since the start of the club four years ago, and they're always very tough at home because of all the travel for the other teams. They've made the top six every year, which is obviously one of our base goals and then to try and finish up as high as possible which in this league- it's a very even league."
Being a world traveler, Smith finds New Zealand to be a different place from other countries he's been to, as well as being similar to his beloved Australia. With his contract less than a month from completion, there will be plenty of questions to be asked about his future, but for now, he's happy in New Zealand and has found the adjustment to be quite easy, and one that he would like to continue experiencing for awhile.
"The people are pretty much the same to Australia but it's a bit windy, cold and rainy. Like wind I've never seen, not even Chicago type wind, it's worse than that. We've got a game in about four hours and it's blowing about 50 miles an hour right now, so it should be interesting. I've got my fiance over here. We love Australia, we love New Zealand, but I have no idea what's in the future. I'd like to play for as long as I can and play in as many different places as I can. Having said that, it'd be nice to stay in one place for two or three years and get a lot of games under my belt, stuff like that."
Smith also has the unique title of being the only American playing in the A-League, and that has not come without attention from his teammates, who give him some good natured ribbing once in awhile. While Americans have long found places in Europe and Mexico, there hasn't been as much of an exodus to the Pacific Rim, so Smith gets plenty of attention.
"It always gets attention from any team you're on when you're an American. You get a lot of jokes, especially being from Texas. A lot of jokes and stuff like that. It hasn't gotten too much attention in the media, but you're given the odd hard time by a few of the boys, but it's all friendly banter."
Smith has played in two games this season for Wellington, and ended up playing 90 minutes in the game against CC Mariners that took place shortly after the interview. Wellington lost 2-1, and currently find themselves mired in 8th place out of the 10 team league, however, being only five games into the season, there's plenty of time to begin climbing up the table. They are only two points behind 6th place Melbourne, who occupy the final playoff spot for the post-season playoffs.