National Writer: Charles Boehm

DC United's Brad Smith celebrates Aussie qualification, eyes place in World Cup squad

Brad Smith DC United

LEESBURG, Va. – If you found the tense finale of Monday’s Australia-Peru World Cup intercontinental playoff riveting television viewing, just put yourself in Brad Smith’s shoes for a moment.

D.C. United’s left wingback hails from Penrith in Sydney’s western suburbs and holds 23 career caps for the Australian national team. He watched on tenterhooks from halfway around the planet as his fellow Socceroos navigated past the United Arab Emirates on June 7, then dueled Peru to a nerve-wracking 0-0 draw in Al Rayyan, requiring a penalty-kick shootout to decide which nation would book the final spot at Qatar 2022.

Making it even more personal, La Blanquirroja featured his D.C. teammate, attacking midfielder Edison Flores, who's heavily linked with a move to back-to-back Liga MX champions Atlas.

“I know most of the [Australia] guys pretty well, been round them for years,” Smith told at D.C.’s United performance center on Thursday. “The bottle – did you see the bottle?”

That would be the water bottle of Peru and Orlando City SC goalkeeper Pedro Gallese, labeled with a rundown of the Australian PK-takers’ tendencies to help him deliver in the pressure-packed situation.

In a cheeky bit of gamesmanship that has since gone viral around the planet, Socceroos backup goalkeeper Andrew Redmayne – who entered the match late as a designated penalty specialist – spotted the “cheat sheet” on the grass as the shootout began and flung it as far from the goal as possible.

“I didn’t even notice when it was going on, I was so nervous,” said Smith with a laugh. “But that’s a crazy story and now it’s going viral with the whole dancing thing.

“That’s so smart – I’ve never seen that. That’s actually crazy. It’s in the moment … I saw an interview with him talking about it and he was just like, it was do-or-die moment and I saw an opportunity and I took it. Those things, you never know if they actually work or not, but he saved a penalty at the end, so maybe it did!”

Making just his third-ever senior international appearance, the 6-foot-4 Redmayne sparked amusement and bafflement with his dancing along the goal line in hopes of distracting the Peruvian takers, only to parry the decisive pen from Alex Valera and send the Aussies to their fifth straight World Cup via methods dubbed “crafty,” “devious” and “borderline cheat[ing]” by various media outlets worldwide.

It made the joyful Redmayne, who has never played professionally abroad, an instant meme for antics reminiscent of Australian children’s musical group the Wiggles – and opened a door of possibility for Smith’s dream of a late run into the Socceroos’ tournament squad later this year.

“It was a nail-biter,” said the former Seattle Sounders FC and Liverpool man of Monday’s drama. “That was nice to see Redmayne come in, the goalkeeper. He’s such a nice guy and to make the save at the end and send Australia to the World Cup, it’s a massive opportunity … I’m around the team, and hopefully going in towards the World Cup, I can push for my place and hopefully go.”

Smith was a Socceroos regular at the start of their qualifying voyage way back in 2019 and has remained in regular contact with manager Graham Arnold and his staff. He’s earned just one cap since the COVID-19 pandemic rolled in, however, a start against Vietnam in September, and knows he needs to hit top gear with United in the coming months if he is to climb back onto the shortlist for Qatar ‘22.

“I’ve been on standby every window, so I’m kind of on the fringe at the moment,” he said. “I played in some of the qualifiers in this qualification process, so I’m right there or thereabouts. Hopefully we do well for D.C., and I do well personally and that can give me the best chance to be able to make the squad and go to the World Cup.”

Like many of his compatriots, Smith believes they shouldn’t have had to endure the agony of two playoff matches in the first place, a path necessitated by their third-place finish behind Saudi Arabia and Japan in Group B of the AFC’s third round of qualifying. Now that they’ve found a route to the big dance, though, excitement is soaring.

“Two difficult games, that we put ourselves in a position where we should’ve really qualified [automatically] in the first place,” he lamented. “It's definitely a big achievement for the country. We should be qualifying. We're good enough.”

Smith became the first Aussie in history to hoist an MLS Cup when he helped the Sounders win it in 2019, and now he’ll aim to follow in former New York Red Bulls Tim Cahill’s famous footsteps by representing the league in the sport’s biggest event. That plan starts with a summer resurgence for D.C., who exit the international break looking up at most of the MLS Eastern Conference from their disappointing station in 13th place after a 4W-7L-2D start and the sudden spring exit of head coach Hernan Losada.

“I feel like we’ve been playing great football. Still, there’s little things that haven’t been going our way or we’ve been turning off in the last few minutes of games, and it’s costing us a lot of points. If that didn’t go that way then we’d be higher up the table and then it’d be a different conversation.” said Smith. “Eventually it’s going to turn around. I think we just need to have a good week and have a couple good results and it’ll give us that boost to push forward.”