Graham Smith wasn’t beaming Monday night just because he persuaded an English Premier League team to stop by Sacramento for more than a week and play two matches against Republic FC at Bonney Field.
Republic FC’s technical director has ties to West Bromwich Albion FC that still tug at his heartstrings.
As a goalkeeper in England, Smith got a taste of the big time when West Bromwich purchased his contract in 1971 and he played in England’s top soccer division for a season against some of the world’s best players.
“I was making $70 a week, and I was in heaven,” he said.
Smith helped West Brom produce one of the biggest upsets of the season, 1-0 over powerful Liverpool on Dec. 27, 1971. During that match, Smith “pulled off the best save of my life.”
Late in the match, Kevin Keegan, one of English soccer’s greats, fired a shot that hit the crossbar. The ball ricocheted back to Keegan, who fired point blank toward the upper corner of the net. Smith somehow made the save to preserve the upset.
Twenty years later, Keegan was the guest speaker at a reunion at Smith’s high school. Later, when talking to Smith, Keegan asked how in the world Smith prevented what Keegan thought was a sure goal.
Smith smiled and said, “Well, Kevin, I was still going for the first (shot).”
Does U.S. soccer need relegation? – West Bromwich Albion was one of the 12 founding members of The Football League in 1888.
While it has spent most of its existence in England’s top division, West Brom has been relegated to lower divisions several times. The Baggies, a bit of soccer’s version of the Chicago Cubs, won their only top-tier title in 1919-20.
The Baggies are entering their fifth consecutive season in the Premier League, but they barely missed being relegated last season, a reason they have a new coach and several new players.
Smith said that while relegation can be humbling, it “adds spice” to the competition. He said it’s one of the elements missing from American professional soccer.
In England and other countries, a team like Republic FC could work its way up to the top division without having to pay a mega-dollar entry fee.
“People don’t realize that most of the teams in England’s premier division have at one time or another spent a part of their history in relegation,” Smith said.
Smith said the fear of relegation – the last three finishers in the 20-team Premier League get demoted to the second-tier Championship Division – keep the bottom-feeders battling to the finish each season instead of tossing in the towel early.
“You get some marvelous seesaw battles as teams try to stay up in the league,” Smith said.
Good and bad – Republic FC coach Preki played his first unit against West Brom on Monday night, but he used primarily reserves in previous friendlies against Mexican side Atlas FC on July 6 and Rangers FC of Scotland on Saturday.
The reserves didn’t play badly. In both matches, Republic FC led 1-0 before giving up second-half goals, including the winners in the 83rd and 90th minutes, respectively, to lose 2-1.
“I thought we did OK for the first 45 minutes against the Rangers,” Preki said. “We weren’t as committed in the second half and let two soft goals in. We played better against Atlas. To be fair to the Rangers, I thought they were more difficult for us.”
But considering the group hasn’t played together much, Preki wasn’t displeased.
“First group or second group of guys doesn’t matter,” he said. “The expectations are high here.”