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Taylor Smith: from undrafted to national team starter

Taylor Smith is having a pretty good year.

Soccer: Tournament of Nations Women's Soccer-Australia at USA Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Taylor Smith got her first call up to the senior US women’s national team in January of this year. She didn’t get rostered for SheBelieves in March, but she made enough of an impression (almost definitely helped along by very solid NWSL play) that she returned to camp in July and promptly played three games in a row, two of them starts, against Australia, Brazil, and Japan. And considering the 1-0 defeat by a rollicking Australian team and the madcap comeback against Brazil, it was as much of a baptism by fire as any national team player’s debut. Smith got 75 minutes against Australia, 56 minutes against Brazil, and then entered the game against Japan in the 30’ as a sub for Kelley O’Hara. She picked out two assists to help the United States end strong and defeat Japan 3-0.

Like a lot of NWSL players, Smith had a great college career and some stints with the US youth setup. At UCLA she scored 27 goals in 87 games and won a national championship in 2013. So along with 144 of her peers, she submitted her name for the 2016 NWSL college draft. She didn’t end up getting picked by any of the 10 teams in the league.

But she did end up on the Western New York Flash’s preseason roster, survived the cuts, ended up becoming a mainstay if an irregular starter, and ended up moving with the team when they became the North Carolina Courage. And now here she is, a serious contender for starting right back in the NT defender pool.

In an interview after Courage practice on Tuesday, Smith confessed she didn’t exactly envision this path for herself. Who would - going from a forward in college to undrafted to a starting NT right back. “Not being drafted I think it took more of a toll mentally than it did physically,” she said. But she didn’t sound bitter or melancholy about it. For a lot of athletes, the challenges don’t come when they’re winning. For someone talented and strong and fast, winning comes easy. The real challenge is figuring out how to proceed after such a stark judgment that you’re not good enough.

“I spent my time with the Flash...the Courage, just rebuilding my game, rebuilding my character, and what kind of player I wanted to be on and off the field,” said Smith, now nearly two seasons removed from that initial disappointment. Even last season was different for Smith compared to 2017. “I think I’m for sure more confident, and still getting more and more comfortable with the position every day at practice. I think this year I finally really embraced the role, where last year it was like, you might be outside back, you might not be. I think I’ve really established myself in that role and really accepted it and decided to study that role and be the best I can at it.”

For Smith, it wasn’t necessarily mentally accepting that she was a right back, but gaining confidence in herself to play the part well. She credits Courage coach Paul Riley’s own confidence in her to start at right back as a factor. And it shows, as Smith is now the Courage’s starting RB, as opposed to 2016, when she was on and off the bench. Now her task is to carry that over to the national team.

“[Jill Ellis] called me in the first day at camp and sat down and she said, this is the process,” said Smith. “She was like, you’ve been doing well in NWSL games, but I want you to be exposed to this level, and I want you be thrown into situations where you don’t have as much time on the ball or you have that pressure now.”

Taylor responded well, building up over the course of the Tournament of Nations. And she had her best performance in a game where her substitution was unexpected. Kelley O’Hara was grimacing during the first half of the game against Japan and eventually came out with a groin injury. Smith had to go in on relatively short notice in the 30’. She settled in after the half and picked up two assists in the 3-0 win. “I think it was a result of me being more comfortable with the team and the playing style,” Smith said. “Big credit to Jill and big credit to the girls on the field making me feel comfortable and confident on the ball and off the ball to make decisions.”

But just because she did especially well in one game doesn’t mean Smith is resting on her laurels. “I think I’m pretty happy with my performance but I think there’s for sure room for improvement,” she said. “I’m excited to be back with [the Courage] and to get better daily and work on different aspects of my game.”

Another move for Smith, but in her life off the pitch, was a simple declaration during Pride Month.

Smith didn’t strategically plan it out; it just happened the way it did, part of her living her life as an out LGBT athlete. The tweet was followed by public support on social media from her Courage teammates. “I think it’s great that the outside world can see that [support] because they do that on a consistent basis, day by day, in and out of practice,” said Smith. “I think it does really help the chemistry that you have off the field, that love and trust that we have for each other and embracing anyone on our team for who they are and what they believe. I think that it really translates on the field.”

It’s not just team chemistry. Smith is very aware of the impact just existing as an LGBT athlete can have. “A little bit before Pride Night I had a fan stop me and say it means so much to her,” said Smith. “That it helped her so much to see a player that is doing so well and is so openly out and confident and playing on the field. It means so much to see someone out there doing what she wants to do one day, being who I am. So that was a pretty cool experience and it was really great to hear.”

Something else that might endear her to fans is her 10-month old Great Pyrenees, Bear, who makes a cameo in an introductory video on her Youtube page.

Smith got Bear when she was at home in Texas. “I mean all dogs are great,” she said, “But I feel like the bigger ones are the ones that have this big heart and are just gentle giants and that’s exactly what she is. I was just at home and I was like, you know what, I’m going to go get a dog and went out to the country and they had a bunch of little puppies and she walked right up to me and so I was like, I’ll take this one.” (Smith is emphatically not a cat person, though. “Once when I was younger I got sent to the hospital because of a cat. So ever since then I’ve kept my distance,” she said, laughing.)

So. Professional life: pretty good. Personal life: happily out with a big fluffy dog who doesn’t mind being manhandled into on-camera hugs. There’s nine games left in the NWSL season and the Courage are #1 in the standings, though just one point clear of #2 Chicago. “I feel great,” said Smith. “We’re not slowing down and I think we’re all still on one page that we take it one game at a time. We’re just focused every week that everyone’s getting better and that everyone’s at their best.... I think we’re trying to carry [that] out to the end of the season. It’s a long season. I think we’re all here to help each other and we’re all really excited.”