PORTLAND, Ore. – The genesis of Josh Smith’s professional debut in Sunday night’s 1-1 draw with the Portland Timbers can be traced back to one specific moment in training last Monday.
Smith, who wasn’t in the match-day squad for the New England Revolution’s 5-2 win over Minnesota United FC last weekend, trained with a small group of players who hadn’t seen action in the home opener. During that session, Smith found himself in a one-on-one battle with Je-Vaughn Watson, an imposing figure at 6-foot-1.
“Usually Je-Vaughn wins those types of things,” said head coach Jay Heaps. “But this past Monday, [Josh] and Je-Vaughn knocked around pretty good. I knew from that point on that I was really going to see if he could be in this environment (in Portland).”
Smith’s physical presence in that training-ground matchup with Watson proved to Heaps that the fourth-round SuperDraft pick had the moxie to deal with Timbers’ forward Fanendo Adi, who, like Smith, stands at 6-foot-4 and towers over many of his teammates.
It was undoubtedly a bold move to hand an untested rookie his debut at Providence Park, matched up against one of the league’s best forwards on one the league’s top-scoring attacks, but it paid dividends. Smith was stellar in his first 90 minutes as a pro, bottling up Adi for long stretches and helping limit an attack that had averaged 4.5 goals per game at home to just one on Sunday night.
“He was ready to go this week,” Heaps said of Smith, who he called his man of the match. “All week we thought about the matchup and we thought it was going to be a really good matchup with him and Adi – a physical presence versus a physical presence. Josh handled himself extremely well tonight.”
Smith, who was told he was going to start on Saturday afternoon, a little more than 24 hours before kickoff, wasn’t awed by the occasion, tussling with Adi multiple times inside the opening 10 minutes.
Adi finished with just one shot on target and three completed passes in the attacking third, after having bagged four goals in his first four games of the season.
“Adi’s a great forward,” Smith said. “I’ve been watching him for two years now and he’s good. He’s strong, he’s good on his feet and it was a good experience to play against a player like that. That was the game plan – to go against him and do as well as I can.”
Smith’s central defensive partner, Antonio Delamea, was immense, as well, with 10 recoveries, 10 clearances, two interceptions and one successful tackle. And Delamea also played a key role in guiding Smith through his debut.
“Obviously he’s experienced,” Smith said of Delamea, his roommate during preseason. “He already has [three] MLS games and I think the communication was great. Before the game we talked a lot, during the game we talked a lot, and I felt like we jelled pretty well today.”
Delamea spent much of preseason playing alongside Smith while Benjamin Angoua recovered from a hamstring injury, but the 25-year-old Slovenian admits that he wasn’t necessarily expecting such a seamless debut from Smith.
“Actually, I’m surprised,” Delamea said. “He played like he had a few games in his pocket.”
Smith didn’t come away from his battle with Adi unscathed – he suffered a dislocated thumb and came off in stoppage time after suffering from cramps – but the rookie said he was “alright” postgame and shouldn’t feel any lingering effects moving forward.
And forward is exactly where Smith is looking after his successful debut.
“I thought he did a great job, but now he should look forward,” Delamea said. “He needs to work even more and more, because he showed today to everyone that he has a big talent.”