Montreal Impact goalkeeper John Smits
Courtesy of Montreal Impact Communications

From CIS to CCL: John Smits' unlikely path to brink of Champions League glory with Montreal Impact

It’s hard not to think about the irony.

John Smits, the Montreal Impact’s on-loan goalkeeper brought in earlier this month as a backup for their CONCACAF Champions League run, was in the opposing team's goal for the Canadian Championship match last year that nearly ended the Impact’s CCL run before it even started.

Now, either the FC Edmonton ‘keeper or new signing Kristian Nicht will be starting in the biggest match in Montreal’s history, the second leg of the CCL final Wednesday against Club America at Olympic Stadium (8 pm ET, Sportsnet One/TVA Sports in Canada, FOX Sports 2/ UniMás/ UDN in US), due to the suspension of starter Evan Bush.

It begs the question, who is this goalkeeper who was in the net for that fateful Canadian Championship semifinal match almost a year ago that ended in controversy after Montreal was awarded a stoppage-time penalty kick that proved to be the winner?

“John is a guy who is really motivated, I think by the fact that he’s been passed over at so many levels,” FC Edmonton broadcaster Steven Sandor told MLSsoccer.com.

Despite his age, 26 years old, Smits is really just getting started as a professional.

He came out of the University of Toronto – who play in the Canadian Interuniversity Sport division, a level not necessarily known for producing top-level prospects – and signed with NASL side Edmonton in 2012 as their fourth-string ‘keeper. He began moving up the depth chart, and when starter Lance Parker suffered injury problems in 2013 and 2014, Smits got his break.

In 2014, after making 20 league appearances, he earned the NASL Golden Glove award for the lowest goals against average.

“On the shot-stopping level, I think, he is probably one of the best goalies in second division last year in NASL,” said Sandor, who noted that the start time of Edmonton’s 2015 Canadian Championship match Wednesday against fellow NASL team Ottawa Fury FC was pushed back to allow fans to watch Montreal’s CCL matchup.

This year, however, with Edmonton’s acquisition of NASL veteran Matt Van Oekel, Smits was relegated back to the No. 2 spot, paving the way for his loan to Montreal.

“I thought that the opportunity for Smitty to get this opportunity was far too great to stand in his way,” Edmonton head coach Colin Miller told MLSsoccer.com. “So it all worked out. It’s worked very beneficial for the Impact hopefully, and in terms of getting a player that was in need of a bit of a lift obviously. … His head could have possibly dropped, and this came about at a time when it really gave John a lift.

"To think at one moment he was playing CIS soccer in Canada, which is our highest level of college soccer, and now all of a sudden he’s the backup goalkeeper for arguably one of Canadian club soccer’s greatest results at Azteca Stadium. You just couldn’t write it any better.”

Miller - a former Canadian international as a player, and coach whose relationship with Montreal’s technical director Adam Braz dates back to their playing days - said Smits' time in the Canadian collegiate level makes him inexperienced for his age, whereas players who take the club route tend to have much more seasoning under their belts. But Miller believes that there’s still a lot of upside to Smits’ game.

“John is pretty much a flat-liner,” Miller said of Smits’ demeanor. “He handles situations certainly externally very well. He doesn’t show a lot of emotion. … John has a good upside and a good temperament and works very hard on his game.”

Sandor said Smits’ intelligence – he graduated with a degree in cell biology and anatomy in 2011 – has also worked to his benefit.

“When you’re playing soccer at a Canadian university you’re not thinking about playing soccer professionally,” Sandor said. “You’re thinking about your life."

Miller also said Smits’ brief time with the Impact has opened his eyes as to what’s possible in his career. Smits joined the Impact in Costa Rica for their semifinal second leg against Alajuelense and served as the backup for that game and Montreal’s 1-1 draw in the first leg of the final against Club America at Azteca Stadium earlier this month.

“He’s buying in very quickly, and this experience that he is gaining, when he sees the passion of Azteca Stadium – and I’ve played there six or seven times with the Canadian national team – and what the game actually means throughout the world, it’s an incredible level to perform,” Miller said. “He’s probably learned more in this short period of time with the Impact, in terms of the crowds and the pressure and that sort of stuff, than he has his entire footballing career.”