Still a relative newcomer to the U.S. Under-20 Men’s National Team, defender Caleb Smith of Solar Chelsea is finding his place on the squad and doing his best to stand out among a talented group. In just his second camp with the U.S. Men’s National Team at any age level, Smith has gone from unknown to being in the mix for a roster spot as the U-20s in the coming months will have their eyes on the qualification process for the 2015 FIFA U-20 World Cup.
“I guess I was never really on the radar,” Smith said. “I played in the Development Academy Showcase two years ago and got called in for a mini-camp. I did well there in my first opportunity with the National Team and I made the Residency squad. The first shot I got, I made the team, so I knew I had the potential to do some great things.”
Smith spent time with the U.S. U-17 Residency Program in Florida last year, marking his first connection to the Youth National team.
“It was hard at first,” Smith said. “That was my first time ever living away from home. It’s always hard living away from home. You focus on the soccer aspect and the school aspect. Make sure you focus, get the grades you need, and playing soccer all day every day is actually a dream.”
The Residency Program was not his first exposure to soccer at a high level. As a starting defender for Solar Chelsea during the 2012-13 Development Academy season, Smith was part of a squad that finished as the runner-up to Real Salt Lake AZ in the U-15/16 division in the Development Academy Championships. That Solar Chelsea squad started the season off slowly but caught fire in the Academy Playoffs and Finals Week.
“It was an up-and-down season. We started off pretty shaky but we used our persistence and we never gave up,” Smith said. “We always fought to the end. We always had belief in each other. The coach had belief in the whole squad.”
Playing for a national title left an impact on Smith and taught him to value and find joy in each game he plays.
“Don’t look ahead – always look at the present,” Smith said. “Enjoy soccer. Soccer is just a game. Play hard every time you get the opportunity to.”
Smith’s development as a player with Solar Chelsea has played a big role in his inclusion with the U-20 player pool. He attributes some of his greatest strengths to the skills he honed with Solar Chelsea, especially as a defender.
“Seeing the field as the left back is really important,” Smith said. “As well as defending, left backs usually get forward. Our coach (Tab Ramos) always emphasizes that outside backs get involved in the attack. But the first job of a defender is to defend, and they have helped develop my defensive skills.”
In his first camp with the U-20s, Smith has come to the team ready to contribute and learn from those with more experience.
“Obviously I was nervous when I first came in. Coach Tab called me in for a reason and he thinks I have potential to hopefully make the team or contribute in any kind of way. I’m just going with my eyes open. It’s definitely a challenge playing with the best players in the country. It’s always a challenge playing with the National Team. It has really pushed me to become a better player.”
Among those helping Smith are the likes of Conor Donovan, Shaq Moore and John Requejo, all with extensive Youth National Team experience and regulars on the current U-20 squad. Having veteran leaders has helped Smith feel comfortable with his new teammates.
“They’re a good group of guys, always helping me out,” Smith said. “Me being the new guy on the team, they take me under their wing and show me the positions I need to be in and what the National Team style of play is like so I can adapt pretty quickly. They are good guys and I look up to them as leaders.”
Smith said his inclusion with the U-20s has been an honor and is an experience he hopes to make the most of going forward in his career.
“It means a lot,” Smith said. “Representing your country, your family, your coaches; it’s a big honor. Wearing the crest is definitely a big honor, so I take pride in that. Potentially making the U-20 squad is one of my goals, so I’m working really hard to get there.”