January 31, 2007 Toronto FC hopeful Jamaal Smith trying to beat the odds again (from Canadian Press)

Toronto FC hopeful Jamaal Smith trying to beat the odds again

TORONTO (CP) - Jamaal Smith may be considered a longshot to make Toronto FC's top squad in its inaugural season.

But the 18-year-old from Mississauga, Ont., knows a thing or two about beating the odds. The six-foot-three defender for York University was the only survivor from the 1,000 FC wannabes that turned out to open tryouts last month for the new Major League Soccer team.

The next step, as head coach Mo Johnston continues to cobble together his roster, is to show well at a training camp Thursday through Feb. 9 at the Ontario Soccer Centre in Vaughan, just north of Toronto.

"I'm excited, I can't wait to play," Smith said during a break in classes at York this week.

Smith, who's loaded with raw ability but is considered a late bloomer in the sport, originally wasn't going to attend the open tryouts - he didn't feel he was ready. Smith went at the urging of his York coach Paul James.

"I just made the phone call and said, 'Are you going to the tryouts?"' James said. "Jamaal said he hadn't thought about it. I said, 'Jamaal, you've got to go. that's it.' So as his coach, I didn't give him much option, I just said: 'Jamaal, you've got to go."'

After two days of open tryouts, the number of players was cut to 250, and then whittled to 50 for the final gruelling day.

"By that time when they got down to the 50, that meant I had a chance, but I still had to face a high level of competition," said Smith. "But I felt comfortable out there."

Smith is a bit of an anomaly in Canadian soccer, a player who didn't come up through the provincial or national team system, but has managed to make huge improvements over the past couple of year because of his athleticism and boundless work ethic.

"I think along the way players can get missed in the system here," said James. "He's potentially a diamond in the rough, but he's still got a long way to go."

The former North Mississauga Soccer Club player earned Canadian university's rookie of the year honours in leading the York Lions to a 6-2-2 record this past season, along the way garnering a reputation for his blistering speed, hard tackling and dominance in the air.

James compares the centre back to England's veteran defender Sol Campbell or Tottenham's centre back Ledley King. During the CIS season, Smith's job was to mark the other team's top striker.

"He's got the perfect frame and size for that position," said James. "He's got to bulk up, he's got to do weights and get bigger and stronger, but he will because he's such a dedicated athlete."

James praises Smith for his positive approach to the game - he's a perfect example, says the coach, of how far a good attitude can take a player.

"Talent opens doors along the way, but if you don't have character, and you don't have the right mentality, then it's difficult to ever achieve ultimately what is required at the highest levels, whether it be professional or the national team," said James. "The reason he's got the chance, the reason he's been identified is he's got the attitude, the mentality that gets him through."

Johnston will keep an 18-man roster for Toronto FC's first team, plus a reserve squad of likely 10 developmental players. Smith's best chances at this point may be in making the reserve squad. Johnston considers the young player a work in progress.

"He's a young defender, he's shown some tremendous athleticism, he's quick," Johnston said. "But he's a project."

Since making it through the open tryouts, Smith has been in the weight room and pounding the roads around York to improve his fitness, and he's spent countless hours in the basement working on his ball skills with his 16-year-old brother Jelani, a member of the Ontario provincial team.

Smith knows what he'll need to do at the upcoming camp.

"Show a desire," he said. "When I'm out there be aggressive, be physical.

"It's my first camp. . . . but I figure as long as I make sure I work hard and stay focused out there, I'll have a shot at making the big squad."

Smith says Toronto FC has opened opportunities for Canadian players, and he would love to blaze a trail for others to follow.

"With a lot of Canadian kids, they thought 'OK, I finished my youth league, I finished university, where to next?' Now you see Toronto FC. . . so maybe there's hope," he said. "Maybe kids are thinking, I can take this further than just the university level."

Following the Vaughan camp, the squad will head to Sunrise, Fla., for a second camp, Feb. 12-24, then attend a third camp in Bradenton, Fla.

The team opens the MLS season April 7 in Carson, Calif., against Chivas USA, and will host the Kansas City Wizards in its home opener April 28.

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