As we countdown the days until the MLS season begins, we will be looking at 25 players from greater Philadelphia who have made an impact on the league 25 years after the first ball was kicked. Read the rest of the series at brotherlygame.com/philly-mls-25.
Twenty-five years after joining the Columbus Crew in their inaugural season, Rob Smith still displays one of his favorite keepsakes from his career in MLS in his office.
The keepsake: a hand-written letter from Lamar Hunt.
“It was a full page handwritten letter,” Smith said of the letter he received from the original MLS investor and owner of the Crew, the league’s first team, after retiring in 2000. “It was very personal, wishing me the best in the future and thanking me for my time with the team…I was extremely impressed by that.”
Smith has made Columbus home in the two decades since he hung up his boots and remains connected to the game both as a match evaluator for the league and as the player development director at Worthington United. His roots remain strong back home in Wilmington, Del. where he says timing and location worked in his favor in his pathway to the pros in the mid-’90s.
“I hit things at a really good time, and I just loved playing,” Smith said. “And I think being from Delaware may have helped me a little bit because I was, you know, from a small state, and seen at the regional level. I also had incredible coaches on the regional team. I had Bruce Arena as one of my regional coaches, Bob Bradley as a regional coach.”
Smith said he also benefited from his relationship with Andrew Rudawsky, a longtime trainer for U.S. Soccer from Delaware who helped him in his youth national team days preparing for camps and eventually for the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, which coincided with the inaugural season of MLS.
“Andy was becoming part of U.S. Soccer as their head men’s trainer at the time so that really helped me a lot because we did a lot together just preparing for training camp,” he said.
Smith was part of the U.S. U-20 team for the 1993 U-20 World Cup in Australia, a member of the Pan American and World University games in 1995 and played for Bruce Arena in the 1996 Olympics.
The former Kirkwood Soccer Club and Thomas McKean High School standout starred during his college years at South Carolina — he was part of the Gamecocks team that lost to Virginia in the College Cup final that ended up being Arena’s fifth and final national title — and played for the Delaware Wizards in the USISL prior to the start of MLS.
His stint with the Wizards was an especially memorable time for Rob because he had a chance to play with his older brother, Eric Smith, a former All-American who won the 1989 Division III national championship with Elizabethtown College.
“I didn’t play many games, I wasn’t around a lot but it was a great learning experience you know with all the older players and having my brother there,” he said. “It was a lot of fun.”
The next year, Smith was picked up in the first MLS Supplemental Draft by the Crew and was in Ohio Stadium on April 13, 1996 for the first ever Columbus Crew match. Though he didn’t play in the game the Crew won 4-0 it’s still a special moment for him, especially viewed now through the lens of the Save the Crew movement that successfully kept the team in Columbus.
“I didn’t play the first game, but just being there, you know, on the bench in that first game was incredible, taking it all in that this league was starting,” he said.
Brian McBride scored a hat trick that night against DC United, which would end up winning the first MLS Cup that season. Smith went on to play five seasons with the Crew.
“I went in waves with the team,” he said. “But I like to tell people I was the 12th man for the Crew. I did play 100 games in five years so I played a lot of games.”
He went into the club record book when he scored the team’s 100th home goal with a bulleted strike from distance on September 6, 1998. He ended up logging 3,743 regular season minutes, nearly 900 playoff minutes and multiple U.S. Open Cup appearances, including a start in the 1998 final the Crew lost to the Chicago Fire. It was the first cup final in club history.
Looking back now, Smith says he thinks he may have been ahead of his time in the way he patrolled the midfield.
“If I was playing today, I would fit in perfectly with Klopp and Liverpool,” he said. “I tell everyone I liked to run up and down and high press. People would say you run way too much, what are you doing?”
He seemingly hasn’t stopped running in the years since his career ended either as a married father of three, an elementary school physical education teacher, player development director, match evaluator and fan of the game. He also keeps tabs on current Delaware players like Mark McKenzie and Anthony Fontana, who joined Smith as just the second player from the First State to score in MLS when he had a goal in his MLS debut in 2018.
“I had so much fun at the beginning, the first five years in the league,” Smith said. “And just, it’s so awesome to see how much the game has grown being part of it doing the match director stuff to kind of be a silent observer at the games. It’s been so much fun to see where the league is and I just hope it continues.”