Tony DiCicco remembers vividly the moment he first saw Kelly Smith play.
Smith, then an 18-year-old, was playing for England against the United States in friendly matches in 1997. The U.S. won that pair of May friendlies handily — 5-0 and 6-0 — but Smith stood out for England. She could play with this world-beating U.S. team. DiCicco, then the U.S. women’s national team coach, saw a star in the making. Twelve years later, he would coach Smith — at that point an established international star — in Women’s Professional Soccer with the Boston Breakers.
Smith, England’s all-time leading scorer with 46 goals, retired from international duty on Tuesday, bringing to an end a 20-year career. She will continue playing for her club, Arsenal, but she will not play at the 2015 Women’s World Cup.
Just how great was Smith? DiCicco says Smith would be on his all-time Best XI team. DiCicco drafted Smith No. 2 overall in the initial WPS international draft, picking her behind Formiga and ahead of Marta. (DiCicco said the Breakers met with Marta and her agent ahead of WPS, but it was believed around the league the the LA Sol, where she was drafted at No. 3, was the only team that could afford her purported $500,000 salary.) DiCicco said he felt Smith was the best player in the draft behind Marta.
“As a former coach [of Smith’s], you always say you find a way to keep her on the field,” DiCicco said. “Similar to what I did with Michelle Akers [with the United States]. For all the players I had, Kelly would be on the Best XI.”
She would fill the No. 10 role, the engine of the team going forward.
DiCicco coached Smith from 2009-11 in WPS. He saw the brilliance and he saw the struggles. Smith’s career, as great as it has been, has been plagued by injuries. Multiple broken legs, multiple foot fractures and knee ligament issues held back the left-footed playmaker at times. DiCicco said he would sometimes give Smith extra off days from training in Boston to manage her knee issues. “She’s a very proud woman,” DiCicco said. “When she gets injured, it’s embarrassing to her.”
Smith also very publicly battled alcoholism, which she opened up about extensively in her autobiography, “Footballer: My Story.”
Among DiCicco’s favorite memories of Smith are two from his first games coaching her in 2009. That was the same year Smith finished third in voting for FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year. On May 2, Smith hit a wonderful half-volley with her left foot from 20 yards out that she made look easy, helping the Breakers beat the favored Sol:
A week later, the teams met again in L.A., and DiCicco recalls Smith turning out of space and accelerating away from Marta, Shannon Boxx and Camille Abily in the midfield to create a counterattack.
“One of her greatest qualities was her ability to hold the ball and control it around other players,” DiCicco said of Smith.
Ongoing knee issues likely put the 36-year-old Smith’s immediate future with England in question, prompting her to go out on her terms. Smith is expected to be part of Fox Sports’ U.S. TV coverage of the 2015 Women’s World Cup, as she was for the tournament draw in December.
Smith will be remembered for her playmaking abilities, her control of the ball and her sweet, left-footed finishes and, perhaps more than anything, her passion.
“She played hard,” DiCicco said. “She played with reckless abandon.”
“She had a fight to her. I used to have to warn her about getting too many yellow cards. She was so competitive.”
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