Home NASL & USL More NASL & USL Ex-FCE keeper Smits says he will need to “re-prove” himself in USL

Ex-FCE keeper Smits says he will need to “re-prove” himself in USL

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By the time FC Edmonton headed into the break between the 2015 NASL spring and fall seasons, keeper John Smits knew he wasn’t going to be back.

In 2014, he won the Golden Glove award, which goes to the keeper who posts the top goals-against average in the league. Less than a year after scooping up that trophy, he’d been relegated to the No. 3 role at FCE.

So, quietly, Smits built up his résumé. He made sure to get his highlight video reels together. And, publicly, he never complained about the situation.

Now, the Canadian keeper will get a chance to reestablish himself with the Wilmington Hammerheads of the USL. The team announced Thursday that it had signed Smits, but he’s been in camp with the team for a couple of weeks running. And,he knew before the New Year that Wilmington was going to be his next destination.

Getting the paperwork done and acquiring the work visa was what slowed down the team’s ability to announce the signing.

“I knew pretty early on that I wasn’t going to be in FC Edmonton’s plans,” said Smits. “And, as mentally taxing as it was, it is, unfortunately, the nature of sports. And now I have the chance to re-prove myself.”

As a University of Toronto product, Smits had to overcome the “he’s just a CIS player” stigma — finally claiming the Eddies’ starting job and winning the NASL’s top keeper award in 2014. But, once he knew he was going to be unemployed, he found out just how hard it is for a Canadian to find a soccer job in North America.

“My agent told me that there was some MLS teams that showed some interest, but because of the foreigner rule, there’s no way they were going to use an international spot on a goalkeeper unless he’s a for-sure number-one.”

In MLS and NASL, Canadians and Americans don’t take up precious international spots on Canadian teams. But, on the American teams, Canadians are treated as internationals, so are often swept aside as the U.S. clubs aren’t thrilled about losing one of those key spots to a player who isn’t European or South American.

But, in USL, Canadians count as domestics league wide — which has been the case even before the third-division league entered into an affiliation deal with MLS.

“Other than the issues with getting a work visa, I don’t count as a foreigner,” Smits said of moving to an American club in USL. “I feel they value me as a player and this is a deal that is good for both sides.” As well, the Hammerheads’ goalkeeper coach is Matt Glaeser, who has plenty of NASL experience. He had seen Smits play, and knew what the Mississauga, Ont. native could offer.

But, Smits said that, in many USL setups, it’s still hard for Canadians. Because, the goal is to get called up to MLS — and that’s when the two-tiered import rules come into play. As well, the situation between MLS clubs and their USL affiliates is complex. For example, as Smits noted, it’s easy to say that the keepers on the MLS roster are the No. 1 and No. 3, because a team doesn’t want it’s No. 2 sitting all the time. So, the real No. 2 is actually the guy starting for the USL side.

Wilmington is affiliated with NYCFC, but Smits said what made the Hammerheads so attractive is that they aren’t as close to their MLS parent club as other USL affiliates. The Hammerheads will develop their own identity, and won’t deal with an MLS parent sending a bunch of players up and down. The Hammerheads will be allowed to develop their own chemistry.

And Smits will battle another former NASL player, Eric Ati, for the No. 1 job.

At this time last year, Smits admits things were rocky. He said he was surprised that the Eddies went out and made the off-season move to sign veteran keeper Matt VanOekel. Smits thought that his job was safe, coming off the Gold-Glove winning year. But, coach Colin Miller had mentioned several times in 2014 that he wanted better distribution out of the keeper’s position. And, this year, Miller has made it no secret that there’s competition between VanOekel and Canadian Tyson Farago for the No. 1 job. Miller said he wants to have two players ready to go at every position.

VanOekel won the starting job, but injuries allowed Smits to get back in goal late in the spring season. But the final nail in the coffin came in a spring-season game in Indianapolis, when Smits was a subbed off at halftime — non-injury — after giving up a couple of goals. That was the last time he’d play for the Eddies.

“There was no communication from the club,” he said. “They made the move and I found out about it through friends asking me how I felt about it all. I came close to feeling sick to my stomach. I thought there were other areas that needed to be addressed, so the move really surprised me. But what made it so difficult was the lack of communication from the front office.”

But, he said he’s buoyed by the reaction he’s received from Edmonton supporters. He’s received many congratulatory messages since the deal was announced — and said he appreciates them. Now, he’s got to prove himself again.

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