No Place Like Home for Chicago House’s AR Smith

Get to know AR Smith, proud son of the South Side and one-time pro prospect, who’s looking to bring amateurs Chicago House AC back to the Open Cup for a second-straight year.
By: Jonah Fontela

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.”

He’s the leader, north star of the amateur Chicago club that took last year’s Open Cup by storm. He scored twice in an extra-time comeback Cupset of USL League One pros Forward Madison. That result set up a date with the crosstown MLS side Chicago Fire in the Third Round as The House – who play in the Midwest Premier League and were founded in the topsy-turvy early days of the COVID-19 pandemic –  went as far as any Open Division side did in last year’s Tournament Proper

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 29-year-old, 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 also played four years at Butler College and whose intensity and ingenuity on gameday are a beacon to his younger teammates, jittery in those moments when a game’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.”

Smith in the 2023 Open Cup Qualifiers

But hold up a second, just in case you think you know who Smith is. He’s a competitor. In every sense of the word. He doesn’t shy away from the hustle of early-morning 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 four rounds of amateur Qualifying last year – and he’s doing it again in a hunt for a place in the 2024 Open Cup. This year’s decisive Fourth-Rounder is a little closer to home than last year’s trip to Brockton, Massachusetts (where the floodlights failed in a tense penalty shootout) but it’s not close enough for comfort.

Smith and his House take on Valhalla FC (who won their last Qualifier 10-1 on the road in Buffalo) on the outskirts of Cincinnati, Ohio on November 18th.

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. “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. “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 changed on April 26th, 2023 when the House took on top-tier pros the Fire in Bridgeview. It was the first Chicago derby in the Open Cup for a quarter-century. The game ended – perhaps predictably – in a 3-0 win for the full-time pros over the part-timers playing for the love of the game or thin hopes of a big break.

“But we were still right there at the end, trying to open up chances and get forward when we could,” said coach Matt Poland, who knows better than anyone the value of Smith in a team where personnel can skew young and change dramatically from year to year.

“Having a guy like AR in the team, with his steady leadership and ability, it’s huge for us,” Poland added.

Smith’s fingerprints are all over this Chicago House club as they look to, maybe, with the right kind of wind, make it one step farther in this year’s Open Cup than in their impressive debut.

“If you look at a guy like AR [Smith], you become aware of what this team is about,” said Coach Poland, on the cusp of another chance at the big stage. “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 Follow him at @jonahfontela on Twitter.