Carson, CA – Amidst the buzz surrounding the LA Galaxy’s 2-0 win over the Montreal Impact on Friday night, was, perhaps, a quiet revelation surrounding a certain positional deficiency. With an offseason move that was anything but popular – trading defender AJ DeLaGarza – and a surgery to Robbie Rogers that left him without much feeling in his foot, the Galaxy were forced to play a converted defensive midfielder in the right back position.
The success of that particular experiment, that saw Rafa Garcia slot into a backline with Daniel Steres, Jelle Van Damme, and Ashley Cole was anything but predictable. Garcia, having to learn a new position on the fly was serviceable with some areas of the game and struggled with others. But ultimately, it looked as though the team had little depth at the position and few exciting options.
Nathan Smith first entered the 2017 Galaxy lineup when teammate Dave Romney, who was filling in for an injured Ashley Cole, was suspended in a bizarre and overreaching decision by the Major League Soccer Disciplinary Committee. Slotting in at left back, his preferred or natural position, Smith played confidently and did well enough to earn a sub role in the Galaxy’s 2-1 win over Real Salt Lake, but this time at right back. His inclusion in the RSL game was a key turning point to the Galaxy’s increased and more dangerous attack.
Smith then got another start in Vancouver and was part of that teamwide debacle that saw the Galaxy play some horrible soccer for about 2 minutes out of a 90-minute performance and get beat 4-2.
Going up against Montreal, it was a real question mark as to how the team and maybe more importantly, Smith would react with self-imposed and fan-imposed pressure hanging on an important three points at home. The answer, reassuringly, was an impressive performance from a 22-year old who has realistically cemented himself as a starter for this team.
“I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but I’m really pleased with his performance and how he’s played. He’s just stepped into that situation like it’s no big deal and he’ll continue to get better.” Curt Onalfo, LA Galaxy Head Coach
“I thought he had a really good performance,” said Galaxy Head Coach, Curt Onalfo. “It’s great to see a young player who played just one year with Galaxy II then gets his opportunity and look what he’s done with it?”
What he’s done with his chance is give some much-needed stability to a position that was a liability, and while doing that, he’s also providing some of the best combination play going forward for the Galaxy on the right side since Sean Franklin patrolled that sideline in 2009.
“I need a player like him,” said Galaxy Midfielder Romain Alessandrini. “He works hard and defends good. I told him ‘Okay, do your job. When I can help you, I’ll help you.'”
And that partnership may be the key to unlocking, even more, potential in this young defender.
Smith is a true two-way player. He gets forward into the attack opening up space for Alessandrini to cut inside and create plays. He often stretches the field so wide he starts his run outside the touchline. On more than one occasion Onalfo had to step back in his technical area to allow Smith some operating room on the right-hand side.
These extreme starts and angles find him open more often than not, and he’s not afraid to mix technical skill with a need to get forward and eat the space in front of him. And he seems to think a step ahead. Being quicker to the ball without expressing the speed to physically outrun his opponents.
“Just thinking a step ahead and playing one or two touch helps out tremendously,” exclaimed humbly Smith after the game. “The guys are dictating the pace and it allows me to play with their style.”
And it’s not just his ability to get forward or his keen two touch passing that has earned him plaudits from the players around him. He is also relentless on defense and carries a chip on his shoulder with a mean edge that might earn him some yellow cards from MLS referees, but endears him to his fans, his coaches, and his teammates.
“He’s like a small Pit Bull. He’s going up and down. He’s good, and if he stays how he is right now, he has a future in this league.” Jermaine Jones, LA Galaxy Midfielder
“He’s like a small Pit Bull,” claimed Galaxy Vice Captain, Jermaine Jones. “He’s going up and down. He’s good, and if he stays how he is right now, he has a future in this league.”
I think everyone is acutely aware that this is a small sample size for judging the future success of Smith – he’s played just 302 MLS minutes. But it’s promising.
Realistically, there hasn’t been this much buzz around a defender for the Galaxy since Oscar Sorto was putting in solid performances for LA Galaxy II a couple years back. But ultimately Sorto’s story doesn’t include on the field success at the Senior Team level. This is different.
Smith is also a product of the the Galaxy’s Academy system, UCLA, and Galaxy II. He’s a “local” product that is showing promise of being a defensive superstar. With a mix of attributes that should make the marketers in the front office take notice.
If any criticisms can be leveled against Smith at this point, their understandable. His ability and want to get forward can sometimes carry him out of position. This opens up the Galaxy to counter attacks. And while he’s quick to react, he’s not fast. Chasing opponents from behind isn’t going to see a ton of success for him. But he’s smart in recovery most times, and takes the proper angles, so that, in time, he should develop a sense of when to attack and when to stay home and defend to limit his exposure to those situations.
But he’s smart in recovery most times, and takes the proper angles, so that, in time, he should develop a sense of when to attack and when to stay home and defend to limit his exposure to those situations.
The Galaxy’s approach to this 2017 season relies on young talent to show and express itself to help buoy this team off the bench and in the starting lineup. And with some young talent not quite ready to make the full-time step to MLS, Smith may have arrived just in time to save this defense from a series of events and injuries that had fans and coaches in an extreme crisis mode. In Nathan Smith, the Galaxy and their fans must trust.