New Kansas City Wizards signing Ryan Smith was once the prized jewel of the Arsenal youth ranks. Many Arsenal fans will remember the promising talent when he made his first team debut in 2003 at the age 16.
Then came the crunching tackle in a reserve game against Ipswich Town in February 2004, resulting in a devastating knee injury (torn ACL, MCL and cartilage) that would permanently mark his career.
“At such a young age, (the knee injury) was a hard thing to take because I was getting ready to start training regularly with the first team in the Premier League,” Smith said on Monday. “Ever since the injury it’s been tough to do what I was doing before.”
Prior to that moment, Smith had been living the dream. The boy who grew up five minutes from the Emirates was on the cusp of breaking onto an Arsenal squad that featured the likes of Freddie Ljungberg and Thierry Henry.
Although he recovered and resumed training with Arsenal, Smith believes that the tackle in 2004 is the main reason Arsenal did not offer the new contract he felt was coming in 2006.
What followed was a carousel of lower-level English teams and a tendency of lasting for a mere few months with each club. He ran through four different clubs in less than four seasons, typically on loans or short-term contracts.
Published reports have cited lack of form, falling out with coaches and injury as the primary culprits. Smith says he never felt comfortable in the lower divisions and the long-ball tactics never suited his game.
On Monday he gave no hint of a player who has been defeated by his lack of success in recent years. Still only 23, Smith likes what he’s seen so far in Kansas City, and he calls the training methods he has seen with the Wizards second only to Arsenal in his career.
And the left winger is ready to produce, even issuing a warning to MLS defenders.
“If you give me space, I’m going to run at you,” he said. “I want to help whoever is up front to score goals. That’s my job. Expect to see some entertainment.”
The Englishman is currently in the process of securing his U.S. citizenship. His father is originally from Belmar, N.J., and is a former corporal for the U.S. military.
“This is a big statement, but once that (citizenship) comes through, I will choose the U.S. over England,” said Smith, who is a former England youth national team player.
In his time with Arsene Wenger, the Frenchman lauded the quickness of the left-footed Smith as well as his crossing abilities. Wenger added boldly: “I am confident (Smith) will be a big success.”
The Wizards are gambling that despite the old knee injury, Wenger’s words prove true.
“There’s something special here in Kansas City. I feel something special is going to happen this year,” Smith said.
The Wizards – and perhaps the U.S. National Team -- can only hope.