Anthony Ray Smith knows exactly where he is and what he’s doing.
The Chicago House AC captain, born and raised on the city’s South Side and known to all as AR, is a rare kind. Playing the game for the right reasons. Happy where he’s at. And chasing nothing but a feeling – “the freedom and the peace and the ability to play the game the way I want to play it.”
Smith is the leader, the north star of this amateur Chicago club that’s taken the 2023 Open Cup by storm. His two goals in an extra-time comeback Cupset of USL League One pros Forward Madison say much about his value ahead of a Third Round showdown with the city’s top dogs – the Chicago Fire.
But they don’t tell the whole story. Smith’s leadership lives in a world above the field, up in the ether where the reasons for doing a thing are as important as the results and rewards you get from it.
Comfort & Freedom at the House
“I play with the House because it's comforting to me,” said the 28-year-old Smith, who came up through the Chicago Fire’s academy and hunted a professional career through Sweden’s long winters, Andalusia’s searing summers and south of the border in Mexico – where he scored a hat-trick in an unofficial debut with Mexico’s Club Leon. “Before I went overseas, Chicago soccer was all I knew.
“It’s natural to be here with the House,” added Smith, who played four years at Butler College and whose intensity and ingenuity on gameday are a beacon to his younger teammates, maybe jittery in those times when everything’s on the line. “I can be myself in any moment of the game.”That’s the essence for Smith, who saw the other side of things up close overseas. The chasing of a pro career, and the demands of it, can grind. They can take the you out of your game. So when he uses words like natural and peace and comfort, it’s clear what he means.
“I played at that [pro] level and I’ve been in that system where it’s so demanding all the time,” he said. “How you eat, how you think, how you feel – it’s monitored, man, and on a daily basis. That process wasn’t for me. That’s a pressure I don’t want.”
But hold up a second, just in case you think you know who Smith is. He’s as competitive a player as has stepped foot on an Open Cup field this year. He doesn’t shy away from the hustle of training four times a week for no pay, and he’s a firm believer that “the more we fight the easier it gets.”
He helped push a group of largely young and untested players through three rounds of amateur Qualifying. That included two away games that required air travel and a penalty-kick shootout in a blackout at Randolph High School in Massachusetts, after the floodlights failed.
When Smith steps on the field and says “it’s go-time,” he means it.
Getting the Fit Right
“I can be myself here,” added Smith, who was as good at baseball growing up as he was at soccer. “It’s natural for me, however that may be. This city accepts me and my team – and we’re winning games. But when you get two levels higher [in the pro game], if you lose a game then, automatically, your spot is up for grabs. Lose again and your job is on the line.”
Smith says he wants to be himself “100 percent of the time” and his love of the game comes from how it’s played – and how he can play it. He’s a kind of shape-shifter with Chicago House, adjusting and bending to meet the situation. Always looking for ways to impact the game on his own terms.
“I love this game so much I don’t have to prove to anyone else that I’m good enough,” he said, a few days out from the win in Wisconsin. “I like to sit under the forwards, go back and turn into a No6 [deep-lying midfielder], get the ball and move it forward. I want to have the freedom to play how I’m feeling and the way I’m needed.”
Freedom. It's a word that comes up a lot when you talk to Smith.
“I love it now. Playing the game with the House, I love it,” he said of his role as team leader, the formal captain – but also a spiritual guide alongside veteran goalkeeper Tony Halterman and former English pro Adam Mann. “Playing this way makes me feel like Messi probably feels in his teams. Being himself and his best at the highest levels of the game. That’s why he still does it there…
“At this level, I can do it.”
The levels will change on April 26th at SeatGeek Stadium in Bridgeview – in the first Chicago derby in the Open Cup for a quarter-century. Chicago House, all amateurs with day jobs, will go up against their city’s top team and the club where Smith earned minutes with the reserves when he was a young man on his way up.
The Fire, while far from what they used to be when current Chicago House president Peter Wilt was churning out trophies there, are four-time Open Cup champions and once an MLS Cup winner. That’s the kind of shine that could blind a group of part-timers to carve out their little corner of the game.
That’s where the influence of Smith comes in. Head Coach Matt Poland’s core of veterans, led by his hand-picked skipper, will be watched closely by the younger boys in the team when kick-off comes.
When the Tough get Going
All eyes were on Smith, too, when the side were 2-0 down in Madison with 15 minutes to go. When everyone was scratching the name Chicago House off the list for the Open Cup’s Third Round draw. He popped up after Mann’s 75th-minute goal cut the deficit in half.
The hometown captain pressurized a pair of hesitant defenders and made them cough up the ball – and provided a cool finish into the corner deep into stoppage time. He repeated the trick in the 103rd minute of extra-time, when the ball seemed to look for him in the box so he could hit home the winner.
Smith’s fingerprints are all over this Chicago House club, founded only three years ago and one of two amateur teams left in the tournament alongside Tulsa Athletic.
“If you look at a guy like AR [Smith], you become aware of what this team is about,” said Coach Poland, who Smith says he has a “pure and genuine” understanding with. “We have great mentors and they share what we’re trying to do. We had it up on the white board from day-one: Chicago House AC Identity.”
Smith, in so many ways, is that identity.
Fontela is editor-in-chief of usopencup.com. Follow him at @jonahfontela on Twitter.