Nine years ago, English international Kelly Smith began her WUSA career, fresh out of a star-studded collegiate career at Seton Hall University, as a relative unknown. She quickly, though, became a fan favorite in Philadelphia with her attacking flair and ability to change a game in an instant.
But a torn ACL in 2002 kept her off the field for much of the season and a second knee injury sidelined her for most of the 2003 season.
The league suspended operations following the 2003 season, leaving Smith and countless others questioning where they would play next. Smith chose to stay in the United States and played in the W-League for the NJ Wildcats.
Halfway through the season, a slide tackle from behind left her with a broken leg and she was forced to watch her team’s run to the final, where they fell to the Vancouver Whitecaps on penalty kicks.
Her confidence shaken, the Watford native flew back to England, where she rehabbed her leg and signed with the Arsenal Ladies, where she played from 2005 to 2008. She was comfortable, she was taken care of and she was finally healthy.
So when the call came from Boston Breakers General Manager Joe Cummings, Smith was hesitant about returning to the USA to play.
“I thought my time in America was over,” she confessed. “I didn’t think it would come back while I was playing. It seemed less and less likely as the years went by. But Tony DiCicco and Joe Cummings called and asked if I wanted to come back.”
And initially her response was a "no."
At Arsenal she was at home; she was playing for the Arsenal Ladies and she also had a position in the academy.
“I had it all in England,” she said.
But the Breakers weren’t giving up there.
They told her how good the league was going to be.
How anyone who wants to play with and against the best players in the world should play in WPS.
Slowly, they began to persuade the English star.
Such a decision would not be made lightly though, especially given her previous injury-riddled stay in America.
She talked with friends and family, and made a list, weighing the pros and cons. After looking at the list, she saw the pros outweighed the cons, meaning only one thing:
She was moving back across the pond to play with the best in the world.
So far, the biggest difference that Smith has noticed between her old WUSA days and the days of WPS are the smaller budgets.
“With The Charge, we spent preseason in California, spent a month in a hotel and trained in the warm weather," Smith said. "With WPS we stayed in Boston, except for a week in Florida.
"Travel is also a lot cheaper,” said Smith.
She's convinced the product on the field is the same, “if not better” than it was during the WUSA. Players have become better technically and are more tactically aware.
Simply put, the game has evolved.
Perhaps one difference for Smith was that she did not miss significant time due to injury.
She did pick up a knee injury against Sky Blue FC on May 29 and was forced to play hurt for the remainder of the season, but it didn’t keep her off the field for significant minutes. She played in 15 of the team’s 20 games and was also named to the 2009 All-Star ballot but was unavailable due to the European Championships.
Smith came into the 2010 preseason fresh, and more importantly, healthy and looking to get through the season fit. She started this season off with a bang, scoring two goals in the Breakers' first two games of the season.
Playing in WPS has allowed Smith to continue to develop her game. Training everyday has allowed her to become more comfortable on the ball and has built the once shaken confidence back up.
But beyond the benefits to her as an individual player, the league has definitely made an impact on the top players in England.
This year, seven English internationals are suiting up in WPS, tying them with Brazil for the most players in WPS.
The competitive environment is the biggest difference, says Smith.
“In England it’s not as competitive. You can let up. It’s so competitive in WPS, you can’t do that.”
For Smith, the decision to give America a second try has definitely worked out well. She's back on the field—healthy—and is enjoying every minute.