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Rookie Smith making a difference off the bench for Impact

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The Canadian Press
5/31/2013 5:07:31 PM
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MONTREAL -- When Blake Smith scored his first goal in Major League Soccer, the rookie did a cartwheel followed by a perfectly executed back flip.

The Montreal Impact hope to see more of those acrobatics from the energetic midfielder they selected eighth overall in this year's MLS SuperDraft.

The 22-year-old has been used off the bench as a substitute with increasing regularity and has begun to make an impact on the scoresheet with a goal and an assist in his last two league games.

"At the start of the season I wasn't getting into games and I used that as motivation to work hard in practice," Smith said this week. "I think the coaches saw that and gained confidence in me, so I'm getting more playing time and I'm trying to take advantage of my moments."

The natural left-footer has been subbing in for Andres Romero late in recent games and may see action again as the Impact (7-2-2) visit Sporting Kansas City (6-4-4) in a key Eastern Conference match-up on Saturday night.

Montreal arrived on a high after a 2-2 draw in Vancouver on Wednesday night gave them the Voyageurs Cup as winners of the Amway Canadian Championship and a berth in the CONCACAF Champions League.

They have also won two MLS games in a row, and Smith figured in both.

In a comeback 3-2 win over Salt Lake two weeks ago, the five-foot-10 Texan fed Matteo Ferrari for the game-winner in added time.

Last Saturday, he was sent in on the left side by Patrice Bernier to score the insurance goal, again in extra time, in a 5-3 victory over Philadelphia. That had him bounding across the Saputo Stadium grass in celebration.

"It's pretty crazy -- all my friends and family have congratulated me -- but now that I've got that behind me, I'm onto the next game," said Smith, who has been doing the backflips since high school.

None of Smith's success is a surprise to Jeremy Fishbein, his coach the last four years at the powerhouse University of New Mexico. Smith scored 13 times in 68 games for the Lobos, and was an NCAA all-star in 2012.

"He's got a lot of fire in him," Fishbein said this week. "I felt he was going to be an excellent pro player.

"Like anyone, there's an adaptation period. He's on a veteran team. He's playing well in that role now, but everyone aspires to be a 90-minute player and I hope he gets that chance."

Fishbein said one of Smith strength is "tremendous lung capacity" that is ideal for playing the full game.

But with the team doing well, so far coach Marco Schallibaum has preferred to continue using Smith off the bench, even with injuries to midfielders Davy Arnaud (concussion) and Andrea Pisanu (thigh), as well as forward Daniele Paponi (thigh).

Fishbein wonders how much feedback Smith gets on a team with a European coach that is dominated by European, mostly Italian, veterans. Smith is also playing in a different country where the majority language is French.

But the El Paso native looks to be fitting in well. Fishbein has watched Impact games and noted his progression.

"He played safe and that's good at the start, but there's another level to him where he's going to break teams down," he said.

With the Impact, Smith finds himself lining up with stars like ex-Bologna and Italy forward Marco Di Vaio and former AC Milan giant Alessandro Nesta.

"It took some getting used to for sure," he said. "There are some guys here where it's pretty intimidating to say you're teammates.

"You've got a World Cup winner (Nesta), and here I am coming from a college. But the adaptation wasn't too difficult.

"Honestly, I had no expectations," he added. "I wanted first of all just to prove to myself that I was good enough to be here. As soon as I realized I could play with these guys, then my expectations are to be on the field and to find minutes and ultimately, to be a game changer."

He is not alone in MLS.

Smith's UNM teammate, the bushy-haired Devon Sandoval, was drafted in the second round and is now a starting forward for Real Salt Lake.

Sandoval got his first MLS goal May 8 against New England. The two players exchanged texts of congratulation.

Smith's first appearance was on March 30 when he subbed for Di Vaio in a 2-0 loss at Kansas City.

The Kansas City player who did most of the damage was midfielder Graham Zusi, but he and defender Matt Besler are away with the U.S. national team for friendlies in Belgium and Germany.

The teams meet again July 27 in Montreal.

Four days after that, the MLS all-star game will be held at Sporting Park, where the league's top players will take on Italian Serie-A club AS Roma.

Blake Smith (Photo: Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

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(Photo: Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)
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