Last December, as new United Soccer League franchise FC Cincinnati built its inaugural roster, Kyle Smith traveled two hours south to try out for its biggest rival.
The Cincinnati native caught the attention of Louisville City FC coach James O’Connor and earned an invtation to a trial camp two months later. On March 14, LouCity announced Smith’s signing, and since then the Transylvania University product has made the biggest impact of any rookie on the roster.
“To come to an open tryout and play the way he has and play as many minutes as he has, he deserves enormous credit,” O’Connor said. “He’s come in — he’s been an absolute breath of fresh air. He’s had the right attitude, the right mentality, and he’s worked his socks off every single day.
“He was given an opportunity in the first game, and he’s managed to take it and grab it with both hands.”
With Louisville atop the USL’s Eastern Conference standings at the season’s midpoint, Smith has logged more minutes on the field in 2016 than any player on the first-place club. Listed as a midfielder, he plays at right back and is tied for the team lead in assists at four. He also scored his first professional goal May 28 in a 2-0 win over the Charleston Battery.
Smith started LouCity’s first River Cities Cup meeting, a 3-2 victory for the visitors April 16 at Cincinnati’s Nippert Stadium, and helped defend as his team played the second half down a man. Emotions will run high again at 7:50 p.m. Saturday against his hometown club with friends and family at Louisville Slugger Field.
“It adds a little bit of pressure, but pressure’s a good thing,” Smith said. “It makes me play better.”
Smith has the role held last season by Bryan Burke, the USL’s Defender of the Year and assists leader. While tasked with manning the back line, the position also plays a major part in attacks in O’Connor’s system.
Smith had before this season only played in the midfield. O’Connor and staff deemed he might succeed in a new role.
“Equally, you need that player to be full of desire and to take on information,” the coach said. “Kyle is someone who, from the onset, we’ve spoken about things and he takes them on board quickly.”
“…It’s 100 percent effort, maximum intensity, and he understands what we want for that particular role. He deserves all the credit. He’s come in and done great.”
LouCity hasn’t lost in 13 straight matches, the longest streak this season in the USL. FC Cincinnati’s last defeat came to Louisville. Since then, the first-year club has reeled off nine in a row unbeaten, rising to third on the Eastern Conference table.
A national audience — ESPN3 has the broadcast — will watch as Smith and LouCity aim to continue their streak.
“I’m sure for him and all of his family, it’ll be a massive occasion, but it’s a massive occasion for us as well and all the group,” O’Connor said. “To have such a big team come to town and create a rivalry, I think it’s something we’re all excited about and looking forward to.”