Brad Smith, it seems, is back. Well, except for his hair, shorn in the offseason during England’s lockdown. But bald Brad Smith may be very good news for the Seattle Sounders, and very bad news for the rest of Major League Soccer.
Smith terrorized the visiting LA Galaxy on Sunday, delivering a goal and assist in the Sounders’ 3-0 romp at Lumen Field. Beyond the stat sheet, he troubled the visitors throughout, pinging in crosses and nearly scoring a second on more than one occasion. He has bagged two goals in his last two matches after going scoreless in his first 51 MLS appearances.
And he did all this just three games into a switch from right back to right wingback.
If many predictions for the Sounders were a little more humble this season than in years past, it was at least in part because it wasn’t clear Smith would ever get back to menacing opponents the way he did on Sunday night.
Smith, 27, first joined the Sounders in the summer of 2018 on loan from English Championship side AFC Bournemouth. He stayed through the end of 2019, quickly establishing himself as perhaps the best attacking left back in MLS. He formed a formidable partnership with midfielder Victor Rodriguez, helping the Sounders nab their second MLS Cup title that fall. His loan over, Smith departed at the end of the season.
It was a short-lived separation. In January, Bournemouth sent Smith on loan to fellow Championship side Cardiff City, where things could have gone better: Smith played just 13 minutes over 17 Cardiff matches. But when the Championship campaign ended in July, he was finally free of his Bournemouth contract. The Sounders came knocking, and signed him by September. There was hope, as with any old flame, that the magic would come roaring back.
That hope was misplaced and a little naive. The Sounders were entering the thick of the congested and abbreviated 2020 MLS season; Smith hadn’t played significant minutes in nearly a year, since the 2019 MLS playoffs. He was in preseason shape, at best. His wife and children and dog were still in England. And he struggled to overcome what he called “a few niggling little injuries” typical to any player working their way into game shape.
“It was a difficult time for me to join the team,” he said in April.
He made just one start and four substitute appearances over 12 regular season matches, and was a substitute throughout the playoffs.
He looked better in the Sounders’ first two matches of 2021 than he did last season, but things still weren’t quite clicking in attack. For one thing, Smith’s pal Rodriguez returned to his native Spain following the 2019 season.
“The reason why Brad worked the first go-around with the Sounders,” said head coach Brian Schmetzer on Sunday, “was because Victor was here. And Victor would come in the pocket, get the ball, be able to turn. And that pair, between Victor and Brad, was great for us.”
But it was more than just the loss of Rodriguez. In a sense, everybody else was gone, too: there’s no winger or natural partner for Smith to team with in the Sounders’ new 3-5-2 formation.
“There’s nobody in front of me,” Smith said back in April.
That means somebody else needs to drift left in support.
“I think we need to help Brad a little bit more with some options when we get in the attacking half of the field,” Schmetzer said in his prematch conference call on Friday.
That help can come in myriad forms. Much of it will soon arrive via designated player Nicolas Lodeiro, who made his season debut as a second-half substitute on Sunday after missing the Sounders’ first two matches with a thigh strain. Arguably the league’s best No. 10 since joining the Sounders in 2016, the left-footed Uruguayan will spearhead the central midfield, but loves to drift left.
Help can also come from up top, as Schmetzer has repeatedly noted.
“[It’s] just re-emphasizing that we have two forwards, and [that] one of them can drop in the pocket, and the other one stay high,” he said. “That’s been kind of the way we’ve been messaging.”
That plan worked to perfection on Sunday, with forward Will Bruin playing a key role in each of the Sounders’ first two goals. In the 20th minute, he popped up in space 35 yards from goal, collected a pass, turned, and played a long ball into space, springing Smith behind defender (and former Sounder) Oniel Fisher. Smith tracked the ball down at the edge of the penalty area before crossing to Raul Ruidiaz at the penalty spot. The Peruvian forward volleyed past Galaxy goalkeeper Jonathan Bond for the 1-0 lead.
“Will Bruin starts the play higher up the field, shows in the pocket, just like we draw it up,” said Schmetzer after the match.
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) May 3, 2021
Not three minutes later Cristian Roldan sent in a cross from the right touchline, finding Smith at the goalmouth. It took two tries, but Smith tapped in the rebound for the 2-0 lead after Bond deflected his initial volley. Once again, Bruin initiated the play from deep, tracking back to the center circle to gather a pass before dribbling into space and feeding Roldan.
“Like myself and other players, it’s [about] learning a new position for Will,” Smith said after the match. “He’s not up there on his own, he’s with a [partner]. He has to drop in and kind of get the ball in those pockets. And you can see how confident he’s getting playing there, each and every game.”
The last time Smith looked like he looked on Sunday, he ended up hoisting the MLS Cup trophy. It’s early days, of course. There is a ton of soccer on the calendar. But the Sounders — Western Conference champions four times in the last five seasons, remember — are 2-0-1 and have outscored their opponents 8-1 in the process. And that is with Lodeiro playing just 24 minutes.
At the very least, it looks like there should be plenty of scoring and plenty of entertaining soccer at Lumen Field this summer, in no small part because Brad Smith has gotten a little help from his friends.
Maybe the haircut didn’t hurt, either.