This past offseason, Chivas USA acquired midfielder Ryan Smith in a series of trades with Sporting Kansas City that resulted in Paulo Nagamura going the other way. Smith left Sporting midway through the 2011 season, and his abrupt departure left many questions as to whether he would ever even return to MLS. Chivas seemed to take a couple of gambles in the offseason, between Smith and selecting Arturo Alvarez in the re-entry draft. As it turned out, Smith came to Chivas and Alvarez did not, and it is likely the gamble worked out well.
Smith has been an integral member for Chivas since arriving, and has appeared in nearly every match (11 out of 13 league games). He's only started six of his matches, however. How can a winger be both integral and only a starter half of the time?I would argue there are three main reasons why Smith is not an automatic starter every match for the Goats, despite having the attacking talent. First, Smith has shown he can be an impact sub. Many players are unhappy having to wait to enter a match, or they just can't get into the rhythm of the game on the fly. Smith's best performance of the season was April 7, when Chivas came from behind to beat the Portland Timbers 2-1. Smith came on at the start of the second half, and he made the difference, as he set up both of Chivas' goals on the night.
At the same time, however, Smith has also shown signs of promise as a starter. Although they did not get a result, Smith was probably Chivas' best player in the first half April 1 against SKC. His ability to move in and out of the starting lineup and make an impact from the start as well as off the bench gives Robin Fraser flexibility in his squad selections. And considering Smith's skill set is considerably different than the man he usually shares time with, Laurent Courtois, means Fraser can swap the players to give opposing defenses a different look during a match.
I think the second reason why Smith does not play 90 minutes every match is the amount of punishment he takes over the course of a match. Although most MLS players are built rather slight, Smith is particularly skinny, and his method of countering physical play by defenders is to use his speed. Slow, big defenders often resort to fouling Smith in order to stop his progress, and he's shown signs this season that he needs occasional rest in order to stay fresh and recuperate from the knocks he frequently receives. As a result, Fraser has the luxury of giving Smith breaks and bringing him off the bench, because the midfield has enough depth to deal with his absence.
Finally, and perhaps most crucially, Smith is probably the worst defender on the team. It was telling in the season opener against the Houston Dynamo when Chivas were setting up to defend a set piece, and Dan Kennedy had to demand Smith come up and defend. Smith argued with Kennedy for a moment before relenting and moving into the box. It could have been a miscommunication between Smith's instructions from the coaches and Kennedy's directions, but Smith's body language made it clear that he didn't want to help out on the defensive end, and did so only reluctantly.
Besides that moment, Smith is usually good for a horror tackle at least once a game on an opposing winger. Remarkably, he's never gotten a red card in his MLS career, although it seems like he'll merit one sooner or later, and his clumsiness in defending should make every Chivas' fan cringe. I will say that occasionally the clumsiness actually accentuates what only look to be poor tackles, but even so, it is bound to make a referee raise a red card at some point. And given his general reluctance to defend most of the time anyway, he may fail to track back and allow an opponent to get numbers forward for an assault on Chivas' goal.
To this point, Smith's defensive deficiencies haven't hurt Chivas, and he's getting paid primarily to be an attacking force. He's been effective so far this season, and Fraser has used Smith remarkably well this season. Still, the depth in midfield, his ability to come off the bench effectively, the punishment he absorbs and his defensive frailties make Smith a unique player on the squad. Now, let's see some goals and some more assists from the Englishman, and a good season will get even better.
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