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Orlando City defender Kyle Smith works to prove he deserves spot in MLS

After making the jump from the USL with coach James O’Connor, Smith is taking advantage of his opportunity with the Lions.

Orlando City SC defender Kyle Smith (24) centers the ball past Los Angeles Galaxy midfielder Uriel Antuna (18) during the second half of the match at Orlando City Stadium. (Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports)

SAN JOSE, Calif. — For defender Kyle Smith, this season with Orlando City SC has been the culmination of more than six years of working overtime to make it to the pros.

It didn’t always seem like he would make it. In his first year out of college, Smith worked as an accountant, studying for the CPA exam while preparing to try out for Louisville FC, a team in the USL.

During that time, Smith balanced professional-level training with his full-time job. He learned how to stay loose while crunching numbers for eight hours in a cubicle. In the winter, he ran in the snow because he doesn’t care for the feel of a treadmill. But even when he didn’t have a team, Smith felt a calm drive to keep striving for his ultimate goal of making an MLS team.

When James O’Connor brought him on at Louisville City FC, it felt like he was finally getting a chance to prove himself.

“I knew what I wanted and I knew I was good enough to do it,” Smith. “I don’t think I was willing to just not do what it took to get here. I kept pushing and it worked out.”

Along with former Louisville City goalkeeper Greg Ranjitsingh, Smith has built his professional career under O’Connor’s guidance. He became a starting right back in the USL under him, playing more minutes than any other Louisville player and earning USL 2017 Defender of the Year while helping the team earn a league championship.

When O’Connor left for Orlando City, it was bittersweet for Ranjitsingh and Smith. But they entered the following season with the understanding O’Connor would be watching, this time from the perspective of an MLS coach. When Louisville won its second consecutive USL Championship, this time without their former coach, O’Connor brought the pair to Orlando. It sent a resounding message to Smith and Ranjitsingh — O’Connor trusted them both, wherever he was coaching.

When Smith and Ranjitsingh moved from USL to MLS, the jump brought a completely different level of competition. It was expected, something they had been seeking out since they first became serious about playing professionally. For both, making the move up to MLS felt more comfortable with a familiar teammate on their side.

“I wasn’t comfortable or complacent in Louisville, but I had built a sense of home there,” Ranjitsingh said. “Coming to a completely new place and a completely new team, it was comforting to know that I’d have someone who knew me, knew my background and that I could continue to grow with.”

For Smith, most of the last four years have been an adjustment. He joined Louisville City as a striker, the all-time leader in goals, assists and points at Transylvania University. But O’Connor asked him to move to fullback, so Smith complied, transitioning into a defensive role. He said O’Connor built him into the right back he is today, molding him into the coach’s vision for the position.

Smith is still building his comfort in the defensive role, but he said assistant coach Sean McAuley continues to help him with positioning and spacing. That background on the opposite end of the field also helps Smith when he takes on strikers. Understanding how opposing strikers will move and think, Smith often recognizes moves from his own days as a striker and uses that experience to predict where an attacker might cut next.

Changing positions midway through his career was a challenge, but Smith took it in stride. His coaches note he brings a unique focus to training — calm, quiet, completely free of complaint no matter what he’s asked to do.

“He’s got this really good attitude towards training and work,” Orlando City assistant coach Sean McAuley said. “He doesn’t seem to get fazed by much. He doesn’t get nervous, he doesn’t get flustered, he just goes and does his job. It’s refreshing.”

When he came to Orlando City, Smith was ready to fulfill a role as a bench player. But the outside back position has been hit by a range of injuries throughout the season, giving Smith to play as the Lions head into the final stretch of a push for the postseason.

Smith and Ranjitsingh talk often about how O’Connor “brought them with him” to MLS. That phrasing carries a certain weight — they said he lifted them, helping both players realize their professional dreams. The result is a combination of gratitude and duty to prove that O’Connor was right to trust them.

For Smith, this has also given him an extra edge of confidence throughout his first season in MLS.

“I see that he trusts me and that he likes me as a player, and it means a lot,” Smith said. “That’s what I want, I want my coach to appreciate me and trust me. For him to bring me along with him, it shows me that he believes I’m good enough to play at this level.”

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