February 9, 2007 Toronto FC training starts for Jamaal Smith (from Toronto Star)

York star gets taste of the show

Learning curve is steep for young defender at Toronto FC camp

Feb 09, 2007 04:30 AM

In the last seconds of a late-practice scrimmage, Toronto FC hopeful Jamaal Smith spotted a teammate trotting up the left wing and tapped the ball his way.

But Smith's pass skittered to the sidelines. The whistle blew to end practice. Smith, an 18-year-old from Mississauga, looked at the ceiling and pressed his fists against his forehead in frustration. Minutes earlier he had launched another outlet pass out of bounds.

Smith, the only player from November's open tryout to earn an invitation to Toronto FC's pre-season camp, is midway through his first year at York University, but this week he's receiving an education on the ruthless reality of pro soccer.

Mostly he's learning how long the leap is from the OUA, where he was an all-star, to the MLS, where he's a boy playing with men.

"They expect the game to be played faster here and I'm willing to adapt to that," Smith said after yesterday's practice. "I've been told I'm going through a learning curve."

Smith, a tall slender defender, was a first team OUA all-star and the CIS rookie of the year on a York squad that went 6-6-2 last season.

When Toronto FC announced that they would hold open tryouts, York's soccer coach, Paul James, pushed Smith to attend.

And when he did, he impressed Toronto FC coach Mo Johnston.

"He's a young kid and he's very athletic. Not every guy can say that," Johnston said.

After a few conversations Johnston also found Smith humble and bright.

"When you look at someone like that, you know they can improve."

Smith, who graduated from Mississauga's Rick Hansen Secondary School, has missed a few classes while attending Toronto FC's first camp, which ends today. But he says he's keeping up with his reading. And last Friday after practice, while his teammates went to lunch, Smith drove from the Soccer Centre in Vaughan to York to take a calculus exam.

Smith isn't sure how his MLS tryout will affect his eligibility at York, but says he's already drafted a plan to balance school and pro soccer. A math for commerce major, Smith says if he makes the team he'll lighten his course load so that he'll earn his honours BA in five years instead of four.

But that's a huge "if."

Johnston says the team likes Smith's raw talent, but isn't thrilled with his grasp of soccer's subtleties, like timing and touch.

"The kid's still learning," Johnston said. "It's still way too early for Jamaal Smith."

After a week of playing against grown men with international experience, Smith who also was recruited by only one U.S. school seems to realize his limits, too.

"I think I have a good chance to make the youth team," he said. "I'm hoping they're banking on me developing as a player."

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