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Smith Tries to Add Sock to L.A. Heat

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Brad Smith, unshaven and wearing a wrinkled T-shirt and shorts, walked into the newspaper office for an interview in a daze.

Ten days ago the blond, blue-eyed Culver City native had finished playing his sixth soccer season in Germany, where he obtained all-star status. But a snap decision brought him back to the United States, and earlier this week he signed to play with the L.A. Heat of the American Professional Soccer League West.

The APSL West is trying to attract more spectators by rewarding teams in the standings with extra points based on the number of goals scored. Having struggled with an ineffective front line, the Heat is touting Smith, an all-Southern Section selection at Culver City High in 1983, as its offensive savior.

“I hope he gives us the ability to score more goals,” General Manager Jill Fracisco said. “We want him to fit in with the players and put the ball in the net, which we desperately need.”

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Smith, with a wealth of experience behind him, arrived for the interview not really clear what to expect.

“In Germany, the fans and the press, they make or break you. I knew a coach that lost back-to-back games at home and he was out like this,” he said, snapping his fingers.

Fracisco couldn’t just snap her fingers to help the Heat out of its scoring doldrums, so she and a coalition of the team’s owners have put their hopes on Smith, whose sudden return to the United States might not be without some pitfalls. Smith reportedly got a lucrative contract by APSL standards. The Heat routinely refuses to say what it pays players, but, according to forward Bobby Bruch, who doubles as director of community affairs: “Everyone has been saying we needed another forward. Now that we got him, he better produce.”

Smith got his first start in a 2-0 victory over the San Diego Nomads last Saturday night. He played well, but did not score. The Heat now has a 3-2 record.

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Smith has been so inundated by the rapid changes in his life that he has had little time to feel pressure. He’s been living out of boxes at his mother-in-law’s Culver City home. He arises each morning at 6 and wonders if it is lunchtime. His English, corrupted by a half-dozen years of speaking German, is slow, yet diligent.

“But there’s no place like Southern California and this is where I wanted to be with my family,” he said.

Later, over an American meal of hamburgers, french fries and onion rings, the kid who was better known in Culver City as a football star demonstrated a keen knowledge about futbol . He talked of counter attacks and corner kicks, strategy and the need for APSL teams to practice more.

“Soccer is a lifestyle in Europe,” he said. “Training two days a week (like here) is unheard of in Germany and when you train, it’s all serious.”

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Smith feels he can help the Heat, but said: “I’m not here to change the team. I need to learn the team’s system. I’ll score my goals and set up more than I score, but I really want to get to know the guys on the team.”

There are things Smith said he needed to catch up on. He returned to the United States only twice for short stays since going to Germany in January of 1984.

“This is like starting over,” he said.

From his first few workouts with the Heat, he has determined that the level of soccer in the United States has improved.

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“It’s not quite the level that I saw in Germany in the past five years, but it is (competitive).”

He was most surprised to learn about the APSL scoring system, which can be confusing to team standings. The league awards six points to each team for a victory, four points if a game is won by penalty kicks, two points for a loss by penalty kicks and one point for each goal scored in regulation up to a maximum of three.

The system is supposed to stimulate more offense, but it has confused a lot of Americans, who are not accustomed to seeing teams with losing records in first place, based on points, as was the case earlier when San Diego topped the Southern Division standings at 2-4.

In addition, there are no tie games. The league utilizes two, 10-minute overtime periods followed by penalty kicks to decide a match. And, to save on travel expenses, road games are usually played back-to-back, a practice foreign to Europe because the game style is more physical there.

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“I’ve got to get used to these things,” Smith said.

Internationally, ties are an integral part of the game, Smith said. And in Germany, soccer “is very business-like.”

“German people expect double from you, particularly if you are a foreign player,” he said. “You have to prove yourself.”

Smith apparently did. In less than a year in Germany, his contract was purchased by a Third Division team from the amateur club he originally signed to play with. He played for three other Third Division teams, including two that went into postseason play. (Germany has three levels of professional soccer, yet a good showing by a lower division team allows it to challenge for a position in a higher division.)

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In 1987 Smith was voted to the Oberliga Select Team, a German all-star team, which represented the country against other world-class teams in international matches. At the time he returned to the United States, Smith was negotiating with a pair of Division II teams. He stood to greatly increase his salary of about $1,500 a game, plus bonuses, but both teams wanted him to become a German citizen to avoid the country’s two foreigner per team rule. Smith, who has an American wife and a 3-year-old son who was born in Germany, made a sudden decision to move back to the United States.

“It was either another six years in Germany or move back here,” he said. “I wanted to settle down with my family. My son needs to be in preschool. My wife has family here. We moved four times there and never had a lot of friends. It was all business.

“If I had been alone, I might have stayed on, but this was the best for my family.”

At Culver, Smith drew headlines for his accomplishments as a running back on the football team, not for his play on the soccer field. In his finest performance, he rushed for 217 yards and two touchdowns, kicked field goals of 22 and 41 yards and added three point-after-touchdown kicks to lead the Centaurs to a 27-14 title-clinching victory over rival Beverly Hills in the final game of the 1982 season. Newspaper accounts called the game one of the best ever played in the Ocean League. Smith was named The Times Westside back of the year.

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But his heart was with soccer, partly because of his size. At a picture taking session held by the Times for its annual all-star team, the 5-foot-9, 170-pound Smith realized he didn’t have a future in the NFL.

“I was standing next to this guy, and we were waiting to have our photos taken,” he said. “He was 6-foot-9, 270-pounds. I reached up, shook his hand, and felt really small.”

He played indoor speed soccer in Orange County after high school, where he was befriended by members of a German amateur team touring Southern California. Smith, who preferred to play outdoors, was invited to play in Germany.

This spring, UCLA Coach Sigi Schmid, on a trip to Europe, advised Smith that he might be able to get a job with an APSL team, a new professional soccer league that hoped to become the recognized professional league of the United States, as required by FIFA, the world governing body of soccer. The country must have a professional league in force by 1992, or it risks losing its bid to host the World Cup in 1994. The United States Soccer Federation has yet to certify the APSL as its professional league, but Smith was encouraged to hear that professional soccer was on the rise.

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Mutual friends, including former Culver City teammate Danny Pena, a defender with the Heat, persuaded Smith to sign with the Heat.

Smith said that playing soccer for a living has become “routine. It’s like instinct to me.” European teams play 11 months a year and the pace of each game is “about three to four times faster than it is here.”

The German season includes more than 40 games, plus playoffs. The Heat is expected to add a few exhibition games to its schedule this summer, but even at that will play about half that many.

“It’s sad that I can’t come to the United States and play in a full professional outdoor league like I am used to,” Smith said.

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But he is happy to be home, just the same.


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