Worldly experience can only boost Soccer's freshman keeper
Aug. 8, 2012
Natalie England, TexasSports.com
AUSTIN, Texas -- A goalkeeper's value to a team extends beyond saves and shutouts. In fact, to the other 10 players in the field, the goalie serves as the eyes in the backs of their heads and, quite often, even the voices inside them.
Texas Soccer freshman Abby Smith takes this job description seriously. When the Longhorns convened for their first training session last Thursday, Smith planted herself in the box, called teammates by name and offered direction with an assertive flair that belies her youth.
"I can't come in being shy," Smith says. "I have to earn my respect for the position. You have to be very direct."
Smith's playing pedigree also commands respect, as she is among 21 players selected to play for the U.S. Under-20 Women's National Team, which will compete in the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Japan Aug. 18-Sep. 8.
Smith was one of three goalkeepers named to the U.S. squad after she recently completed a two-week training camp in Florida. She'll leave the Longhorns to join the national team on Thursday, and if the U.S. advances to the World Cup championship match, Smith would not rejoin the Longhorns until the second week of September.
"We couldn't be more excited to have Abby here at Texas," UT head coach Angela Kelly said. "Our Texas Soccer family will be her biggest fans. We want to ensure she is prepared physically and emotionally to pursue excellence. Nothing will ever replace the experience and knowledge that she will gain at the World Cup."
Smith has been enamored with the idea of representing the red, white and blue since watching "Dare to Dream: The Story of the U.S. Women's Soccer Team," a documentary about the Americans' journey from obscurity to 1999 World Cup phenomenons and Olympic gold medal sensations.
"Every time I watch that movie, it's just inspiring to see them play," Smith says.
Smith has been involved with the U.S. U-18 and U-17 National Team camps and made her first international trip in December 2009, traveling to Argentina with the U-17 squad.
But Smith's introduction to soccer started years ago, when she was the only one on her youth league teams not afraid to go in the goal. Over the years, Smith began training with older players and even male players.
During the fast-paced confines of indoor leagues, Smith also honed her ability to anticipate, a trait that has been integral to her growth into one of the country's best young goalkeepers.
"You have to always be ahead of the play," Smith says. "If I can keep a shutout, that's great. But if we're down a goal, I still have to keep it cool and make sure everybody in front of me is relaxed and in the flow of the game. You have to keep them focused."
Usually, Smith inspires that focus with her calls from the keeper's box, but she's learning the role of being a game changer.
For instance, this summer at the national championship tournament with the Dallas Texans, Smith's club team, she entered the game after 20 minutes, with her team trailing 1-0. It proceeded like that until midway through the second half.
When her team got a free kick at midfield, Smith knew the wind was at her back and that her team needed organization, a jolt even.
"I literally pushed everybody forward and took the free kick," Smith said.
The shot curled off a center line and tucked just into the upper 90 of the goal, tying the match at 1-1. After double overtime, Smith's team won in a shootout, as she saved two and influenced a third miss.
"You have to visualize what you want to do during a game," Smith says. "You have to know that you don't want to let them score. It's a mindset."
Smith's mindset is one the Longhorns welcome, even if it takes a few weeks for it to reveal itself on UT's pitch.
"The team is so supportive, and they're excited that I'm going to the World Cup," Smith says. "They're excited that I'll be coming back as well."