In 1995, Don Smart began the process of looking to make it big in American soccer. Even though he was just eight at the time, his trips to the Bronx and back to his native land of Jamaica helped him grow as a soccer player.
There he was. His plan was to make it as a professional soccer player; something he had dreamed of since he started playing at a very young age. There was no Plan B, he admits.
Fast forward to almost a decade later, Smart is now a driving force at the newest member of the North American Soccer League (NASL), Indy Eleven. But, before he could become big time in U.S. soccer, Don had to find his way through the jungle of relocating to the States and finding his way fighting against the talent of American soccer.
Although his story does not start in Virginia, it’s a great starting place for the success that he has seen lately. The now 25-year-old had jumped from Fredericksburg Hotspur of the PDL to the newly former RVA FC in 2013.
“I knew the coach from Fredericksburg in the PDL, and he called me to see if I was playing anywhere, so I decided to go to Virginia. It was a great atmosphere to play in.”
Out of that relationship, Smart created a fantastic spot for himself with the first year club RVA FC (Richmond, Virginia) in the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL). Much like the newly formed club, Smart was looking to establish himself as he attempted to reach his goal of professional soccer
“It was a good experience, to be honest,” Smart said of the move to the NPSL. “I did not know much about the league, but I was impressed with the competitiveness of the league. For guys playing in the Caribbean, if you don’t have a team, the best thing is to come play in the U.S. leagues and help yourself get noticed.”
In that year with RVA FC, the club trounced their opposition in the Mid-Atlantic Division going undefeated in eight matches (collecting 20 of a possible 24 points) and ending with a goal difference of plus-15, as they notched 23 goals in those eight matches. With all those 23 goals scored in the NPSL, Smart was accountable for nine of them, putting a good standard for the season.
“It was the coaching and the team that helped me play football; we all believed in each other,” Smart said of his former club.
RVA not only went through their division foes, but impressively, and nearly improbably, won the entire NPSL playoffs. Beating Jacksonville United (Sunshine Division) in the Regional Semifinals 5-3, RVA FC would not concede another goal in the tournament, beating Chattanooga FC 1-0, Erie Admirals SC 4-0, and finally Sonoma County Sol 2-0 in the NPSL National Championship game.
“For us to make that kind of run, I have to give the credit to coach. Some of us played together the year before, so we already had a bond. We got along really well. We looked out for each other and even after practice we hung out together.”
That coach is Virginia native Grover Gibson, who played exclusively in Germany in his decade-long career.
“It was pretty fun having a good defense, but coach Gibson was a hard coach, but he knew that we had the ability that we may not have known. In the playoffs, the coaches wanted us to keep the pressure on and keep the game high and everybody played for each other, so they created a winning mentality from the get go,” the Jamaican added. “It was like a brotherhood, basically.”
The fans in Virginia were more than welcoming to have the NPSL in their backyard. Most of the players on the roster had gone to school in the area, so the fans had a rooting interest in their local club.
“The atmosphere in Virginia was fantastic. Soccer is huge there and a lot of kids and families came out to watch us play. We gave camps to most of the kids, so it was a great bond that we related with the community. It was nice for them to have us coach them then they would watch us on the field.”
What made Smart’s story a bit unique is that when the season was over, he did not pack up and head to college, as most players in the NPSL would do. His offseasons were intensely focused on getting ready for the next season, or ready for the next tryout that could come his way.
Since Smart has been able to play at the different levels of the U.S. Soccer pyramid, he has a good gauge on where the talent lies in the States. So when he was surprised how good the competition was for the NPSL one takes notice.
“There were some good teams that we played against in the playoffs. They have a lot of talent in the league and they have a chance to make it professionally.”
Smart considers himself very lucky to be where he’s at since he notes that not all Jamaicans are able to realize their dreams and have the opportunity to play the beautiful game.
“Fitness, dedication, and the love of the sport is the biggest things needed to succed when coming from Jamaica. The NPSL helped me by allowing me to showcase my talents and getting my name out there.”
When you gave the amount of firepower that Smart has, it’s easy to be noticed. From experience, Smart has great advice for those playing in the league looking to make it to the next level.
“You never know who is out there watching you play. So I kept playing the best that I can and luckily, I got the call from my agent that Indy Eleven asked me to come for a tryout.”
And as they say, the rest is history.