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Former Ashland soccer star Smith goes pro

Former Ashland High athlete Riley Smith traded the soccer life for the snow life after wrapping up her collegiate career at Oregon and moving back home.

She bought a one-way ticket and moved to live amid the picturesque beauty of Telluride, Colorado, for a couple of months, skiing and working.

The ice lit a fire under her.

“While I was there I realized I wanted to keep playing,” the 26-year-old recalls. “I had an itch to compete at a high level. I needed to go back home and train.”

The passion was there, but the opportunities were not. Riley, a defender who logged more minutes during her junior and senior years with the Ducks than anyone else, tried out for several professional teams without much luck.

While weathering rejection, she trained whenever and wherever she could. Smith worked out with colleges and in adult leagues. And finally, her perseverance through a circuitous journey paid off.

Smith signed as a national team replacement with the Houston Dash of the National Women’s Soccer League late last month. With the Women’s World Cup underway, the nine-team league needed to fill roster spots.

The Dash (3-2-2) hosted the Orlando Pride tonight.

Smith isn’t sure how much time she’ll see on the pitch with Houston, but she’s thankful for anything she gets.

“I have to be in the moment and go with the flow,” she says. “I’m on the roster, with a team, training with them and helping wherever I can.”

Smith grew up in Ashland and was an all-conference performer for the Grizzles. With the Ducks, she earned Academic All-Pac-12 recognition, registered 3,214 minutes her junior and senior seasons — the most of any field player in her last two seasons — and was voted most valuable defender by teammates her final year.

The path wasn’t clear for Smith after college. She spent some of her final summer in Eugene playing for the Timbers FC Azul club of the Women’s Premier Soccer League before returning to the Rogue Valley. Not long after that she relocated to Colorado.

“I wanted to play soccer but couldn’t because there was snow everywhere,” the 2011 Ashland High graduate recalls. “I couldn’t run on the streets. We were riding gondolas up and down to get into town.”

NWSL tryouts with the Portland Thorns in 2016 were a month away when Smith came back home and prepared. She tried out but never heard back. So Smith went back to the drawing board, practicing locally with Southern Oregon University and in recreational leagues.

“Literally anything I could find,” Smith recalls of her pursuit of soccer opportunities.

During her second attempt to make the Portland roster, Smith tore a calf muscle. Devastation turned to relief when her physical therapist told her that it was a plantaris muscle injury and that she was clear to try out with the Seattle Reign the following week.

Smith didn’t land a spot with the Reign, but did make the cut with the WPSL ISC Gunners of Issaquah, Washington. The Gunners went 7-0-3 in 2017.

Playing time was limited, Smith recalls.

“I was discouraged,” she says. “I wanted to grow as a player. I had to re-evaluate.”

Smith did just that, moving to Bristol, Vermont, to work on a movie with a friend. The film, called The Homecoming, centers on Zeno Mountain Farm, an organization that hosts camps for people with and without disabilities. Smith helped with props and set design.

Somewhere between that and returning to Ashland, her passion for soccer reignited.

“It kind of just clicked that I wanted to play again,” she recalls.

A tour of NWSL tryouts ensued, with visits to Seattle, Portland, New Jersey and Utah. The Thorns gave Smith another look in a preseason match. She played in one game for about seven minutes and then in another for a half.

“Then I didn’t hear anything (from the Thorns),” she says. “That was the extent of what they needed. I was bummed, but I got a taste. I knew I couldn’t give up after that.”

Smith next trained with Western Washington University while living with a cousin in Bellingham, Washington. She later went to a soccer combine in Los Angeles. Smith was evaluated and told no, again.

Holding out hope, Smith next visited Houston for a tryout with the Dash in March. She got a trial run, but there simply wasn’t a spot for her at the time. The coaches gave her good feedback and told her to keep her ears open. She received a fateful call to return around May 20. Houston needed replacements for players competing in the World Cup.

Dash players Lindsay Agnew, Nichelle Prince, Sophie Schmidt and Allysha Chapman are playing for Canada, while Rachel Daly is with England and Clare Polkinghorne with Australia.

The United States women routed Thailand, 13-0, on Tuesday. The Americans next face Chile Sunday.

“This year is super fun to watch (the World Cup),” says Smith, who was 11 when she spectated at the 2003 World Cup in Portland. “It’s fun for me personally to watch because I know people out there and I can support them as friends and as teammates. That is something new and unique for myself.”

Smith, who lives at a friend’s house in Houston, made the Dash travel roster for a June 2 road meeting against the Reign. She hasn’t yet played a minute in the NWSL, but says she’ll be ready when her name is called.

In fact, she’s been ready for some time.

Reach freelance writer Dan Jones at dljcards@gmail.com.

Houston, TX - Thursday June 06, 2019: Houston Dash Media Day at BBVA Compass Stadium.