Fifth-year left back Smith aiming to break through: “This is a huge year for me”

Donnie Smith preseason 2017

CASA GRANDE, Ariz. – Donnie Smith is hopeful that his standout performance in the New England Revolution’s preseason opener on Tuesday morning will be a harbinger of things to come in 2017.

Smith, a 26-year-old left back entering his fifth season with the Revolution, has seen limited first-team action during his time in Foxborough, making just five MLS appearances totaling 311 minutes. He’s made an additional five appearances for the Revs in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.

Injuries have played a major role in Smith’s inability to break into the lineup, but the former 2nd-round SuperDraft pick (2013) stayed local this past offseason in an effort to curb the issue, and he’s hopeful that the work he’s put in will lead to more first-team opportunities moving forward.

“I stayed in Boston this offseason just so I could work,” Smith said. “I’ve had a lot of hamstring issues in the past, so trying to stay healthy is the main thing for me. The games that Chris Tierney might not be able to play, I want to be in that spot and start those games. It’s very important to do that this year.”

It looked as though Smith was going to grab hold of a similar opportunity last season, starting back-to-back games in late April when Tierney was unavailable because of injury. Smith nabbed man of the match honors in his 2016 debut against the Portland Timbers, but suffered a hamstring injury just three days later against Orlando City SC and didn’t make another start for the rest of the year.

Head coach Jay Heaps has nevertheless kept faith in the winger-turned-defender, and he’s confident that if healthy, Smith can be a valuable depth piece on the left side of the field.

“I think it’s a big year (for him). It really is,” Heaps said of Smith. “The reality is that he’s almost gotten over the hump and gotten more minutes, but he took a couple unlucky injuries last year.

“He’s someone that we want to see get more minutes and push Chris for certain time, but also give Chris a rest when he needs a rest.”

Smith’s journey toward consistent first-team minutes took an important step on Tuesday when he played the second half of New England’s preseason opener against Minnesota United, assisting on Kei Kamara’s game-tying goal and shutting out the expansion side for 45 minutes.

Plenty of work remains to be done, both through the next four-and-a-half weeks of preseason and as the regular season gets underway, but for Smith, one thing is perfectly clear.

“This is a huge year for me,” he said.