Steven Smith: poor decisions replace injuries to derail a promising career

Did the Portland Timbers tell Steven Smith they didn't have plans for him in 2013?

Unless they did, either in word, or via an insultingly low contract offer, Smith should have re-signed. He needed a full season of health and good play to erase the doubts of potential suitors at higher levels.

The idea that the Timbers pushed Smith out hardly seems plausible, given his performance in 2012. Smith's contributions were not only a bright spot in a dark year for the Timbers, they were a bright spot in a dark career for Steven Smith. While he was certainly rusty on arrival, his consistency improved as the season went on, and soon his old attacking potential, field intelligence, and solid defending, was shining through.

Prior to his signing with Portland, Smith's promising career had been derailed by ongoing injuries. But Portland hadn't been his first comeback opportunity. After missing significant time with pelvic problems, Smith found a chance to re-start his fizzling career in the English Championship with Norwich City.

He signed in 2010, but an achilles injury and some remaining hip issues held him back. In spite of what appeared to be Norwich's willingness to wait out Smith's physical hangover, and give him regular role as soon as he was fully healthy, Smith succumbed to homesickness and asked for a return home to Scotland.

Sadly, by winning a loan deal to Aberdeen, Smith threw away what may have been a chance to play in one of the top leagues in the world. Norwich was in the midst of a rapid ascent through the English system, and went on to win promotion to the Premier League after he left on loan.

However, at Aberdeen, Smith finally did find that run of health and consistent playing time he'd been looking for. If only that could have happened with Norwich. But it was better than nothing. It finally looked like he was ready to work his way back to his full potential.

Aberdeen was ready to offer Steven Smith a contract at the end of his loan, but needed to get him out of his contract with the newly promoted Norwich City first. It is here that an entirely different, but equally devastating pattern began to emerge. And this time, Smith had no one to blame but himself.

It appears Aberdeen could not afford Smith's salary, which may have increased or involved some kind of extra bonus, due to Norwich's recent promotion to the Premiere League. Whatever the case, Smith must have been unwilling to make the concessions they needed to take over his contract.

The alternative was devastating. Smith's contract was moved, on a free transfer, from the rapidly ascending Norwich City, to the free-falling Preston North End, who had recently been relegated to League One (England's 3rd tier). There, an unhappy Smith made just seven appearances and found himself wanting out again.

But Smith received yet another favor from the universe--a chance to revive his career in the United States.

Smith's old Rangers buddy, Kris Boyd of the Portland Timbers in Major League Soccer, tipped him to fill a gap at left back for his struggling club.

Smith was an immediate lock for the starting left back position, and after a solid run of health and form, Smith was finally poised to prove himself. Sure, the Timbers had been awful, but Smith hadn't, and the future was not looking so bleak. Quality players from around the league, and even a few from abroad, were already fighting for a chance to join the club and play for the brilliant, attack-minded Caleb Porter, who was arriving as the new coach for the upcoming season.

This was Smith's chance. The injuries were finally behind him. It seemed realistic that he could play a full season in good health in a system that would put his attacking abilities on display. His return to form could put Europe on notice that Steven Smith was BACK, and primed to finally reach his potential.

Why couldn't Smith leave good enough alone for just one more year?

Once again, he was unable to settle the monetary side of things. Rather than accepting the lower pay of Major League Soccer for one more year to prove his return to health and form, Smith declined what the Timbers were willing to give him, and returned to Scotland in search of a better deal, though he continued to train so he could hit the ground running when the right offer came in.

Days turned into weeks.

Weeks turned into months.

Gradually, reality became impossible to ignore.

Steven Smith wasn't going to get the contract he thought he had earned.

He'd overestimated his footballing value and failed to show enough, for long enough, to convince other clubs of his full return. Smith's stubborn patience only amounted to an almost year-long stretch of no club, little experience, and almost zero exposure to potential suitors, at an age where time was of the essence. Smith's stubborn patience won him nothing but a loss of footballing capital and an extended absence from competitive action, missing valuable experience and exposure at an age where time is of the essence.

A few days ago, the news broke that Steven Smith had resigned with Glasgow Rangers F.C., the team he'd been training with.

What a relief. Smith was finally back with his old club from his younger, more promising years.

But today's Rangers are now a shell of the Rangers he once played for. After liquidation and reformation, the new Rangers' application to join the Scottish Premier League was rejected. The Football League accepted them, but forced them to start at the bottom of their three-division system, Scotland's 4th tier of football.

One can see a few positives by squinting hard enough.

1. Fan support: despite their outrage over the club's financial disaster, and the low standing in the Scottish system, Rangers fans are fully on board with the resurrection of the team. This not only helps the club feel like it's a big deal, it also gives them a financial edge over the other lower-tier teams, giving them an edge as they try to work their way up. So with Rangers, Smith has a suitor that is a cut most other lower-division teams in Scotland.

2. Ally McCoist: the Rangers manager and former star showed tremendous character and stayed with the team, signing with the newly formed version of the club, in spite of the fact that it effectively dropped him from the top, to the bottom of the Scottish Football ladder. McCoist remains committed to sticking with the team and helping them slowly work their way back to the Scottish Premiere League. So Smith may be getting a third-tier team, but he's still getting a first-tier manager with a plan.

3. Immediate promotion: Rangers won the 3rd Division on their first try, which promotes them to the 2nd Division of the Football League (3rd tier). Their plan to return to the top is off to a very good start. Still, the fact remains that it will take a minimum of two more full seasons of play for the club to make it back to the highest tier. By that time, Steven Smith will be turning 30, when he may be looking at the prime of his career in the rear view mirror.

By signing with Rangers, Smith appears to be waving the white flag. He's finally got a club, but it's gigantic step down from Aberdeen or the even Portland Timbers, and feels like nothing compared Norwich City. He'll probably earn an OK salary and play very well against inferior competition. But the low standing of the Scottish 2nd Division will stunt, if not eliminate entirely, his ability any impress bigger suitors.

But Steven Smith also appears to be a guy who likes being home. He likes his home country, his family, and his old club. With Rangers, he can stay in a place he feels happy and continue to play the sport he loves with a club he loves.

For some people, career is everything. Others see a career as a means to an end. In a field that is spectator-driven, it is harder to be the latter, as fans expect nothing but the best from their favorite players.

But while it's frustrating to watch Smith appear to give up on achieving his highest potential, as he pays the price for a mix of bad physical luck and poor career decisions, Steven Smith's first duty is to himself and his family. If he is being true to that, who are we to judge? If he's happier playing for Rangers in the 3rd tier of Scottish Football, than he is toughing it out in a foreign country to prove his potential and win a contract in a top league, more power to him.

I'm happy for Steven Smith--that he finally has a club, and a chance to shake the injury bug once and for all. But I'm also a spectator that wants my favorite players to reach their highest potential.

I enjoyed Smith's play and his vocal appreciation for the Timbers fans, which he has continued to share via his Twitter account. I thought Smith was a good solution at left back, and was sad he chose to leave. Admittedly, there are some educated guesses I'm using to fill in details about each of Smith's decisions that a person like me cannot know or fully understand.

But I still can't help but wonder. What if Smith had powered through his homesickness and stuck with Norwich?

What if he had renegotiated his contract to stay with Aberdeen?

What if he had swallowed his pride and taken a less-than-stellar contract offer from the Timbers to silence his critics once and for all in 2013?

While I respect Smith and his decisions, I can't help but feel a sense of tragedy surrounding his career. The injuries probably weren't his fault, but I still wonder where Steven Smith's career might be headed if he'd found a way to stick with one just one of his former clubs over the last 3.5 years, instead of holding out for the greener grass that never found him.

Alright guys, I don't believe I have to say this but, just in case, please do not submit anything racist, homophobic, sexist or otherwise not appropriate for even the younger Timbers fans.

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