Soccer players Dylan Smith and Kyle Nuel encountered one another once in high school, battling in a 2009 game when Smith was a senior at Steinert and Nuel a sophomore at Hamilton West. Eight years later, the two are chasing similar dreams as professional teammates.
They recently completed their spring season with the American Soccer League’s Philadelphia Fury by going 10-0 and winning the league title with a 1-0 victory over Maryland SGFC.
The ASL is a developmental league that provides American soccer players with professional opportunities along with a direct pathway into the major soccer leagues around the world. All players must be registered as professionals with FIFA and US Soccer.
Nuel signed with Philadelphia last fall and eventually urged the club to consider acquiring Smith. The Fury already knew of him and had no problem doing so. Smith arrived this spring, and both players are gearing up for the fall campaign, which is considered the main season in ASL play.
“Winning the title and going undefeated was a great step, it’s always exciting,” Smith said. “It turns people’s eyes and opens some doors for you.”
After the Fury outscored its opponents 28-3, Nuel saw the season in two different ways.
“Success brings success for the most part, but it’s good and bad at the same time,” he said. “It’s obviously great in terms of playing well. That’s what you’re looking to do. But you also like to be a little challenged. Not that we’re not being challenged in games, but there were some games where we were almost coasting.”
Smith played as a central holding midfielder, a role that requires involvement in both attack and defense.
“I’m sitting right in the middle calling all the shots defensively and offensively,” he said. “So, I take just as much pride in clean sheets as in scoring six goals in a game.”
He collected four goals and six assists. Nuel feels Smith is one of the most intelligent Americans he has ever played with.
“You can just tell he’s a player that can think himself through a game as opposed to players that work themselves through a game,” Nuel said.
Nuel said Smith reads games well, frequently winning the ball back from opponents and distributing the ball to teammates from a deep position. “Once he’s on the ball, he’s very clever and can make a really good pass,” he said.
Nuel played at left fullback after playing most of his career as a forward or attacking midfielder. He enjoyed playing as an attacker, but also feels that his offensive skills come in handy playing a wide defensive position. “I do my defensive duties well but I also offer that ability to go forward and add a little bit offensively,” he said.
Smith considers his fellow Hamiltonian the Fury’s defensive leader.
“He was our main guy in the back all spring,” Smith said. “We’ve got a lot of chemistry together so it’s fun playing with him. And he works so hard, him and another kid, Luke Finkelstein, are my two buddies on the team and they’re fitness freaks. I’m training to try and keep up with them, and they’ve helped raise my level. They’re professionals on and off the field, so that’s awesome.”
Nuel and Smith took similar routes to the Fury, as both played in college and overseas before beginning their professional careers in the America.
Smith is the son of local legend and U.S. Soccer icon Bobby Smith. Smith is a Steinert grad and U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame member who played professionally and on the Mens’ National Team.
Dylan Smith also went to Steinert, where he admits he did better on the field than in the classroom. “I kind of screwed up in high school,” Smith said. “I didn’t care about grades as much as I should have.” After high school, he played soccer at Mercer County Community College, even though some saw Division I potential in him.
He has also picked up a reputation over the years as someone who thought he was special because of who his father is — a charge he feels is unfair.
“I’d always heard, for some reason, that I’ve got all the talent in the world but I thought I was this or that because I’m Bobby Smith’s kid,” Smith said. “They thought I was a punk or a knucklehead or whatever.”
Nuel, who did not know Smith well in high school, thinks Smith’s reputation was undeserved. Although he remembers that the two had a little confrontation in the game they played against one another.
“He was kind of a (smack) talker,” Nuel said with a laugh. “But he wasn’t really a punk. Talking (smack) is just part of the game. Dylan’s a really intelligent player and always has been. I think at that time he probably saw himself as more intelligent than everyone else in terms of his soccer mindset, and that incited him to try and get away with a little more.”
Smith knew his lapse in academics made it harder on himself, but it hardly slowed him. After high school he went to Argentina and played for a third division professional club for six months. It suddenly hit him that he should be playing in college and he returned to play for Mercer County Community College.
From there he went to Rowan and was named Division III All-American. During that time he worked on cultivating a more positive image.
“I was always locked into soccer, and always took the game very seriously,” he said. “And I think I’ve matured off the field a lot.”
After graduating from Rowan in 2013, he attended an MLS combine in Bradenton, Fla., and was selected by the Fort Lauderdale Strikers of the North American Soccer League and Harrisburg City of the United Soccer League. He opted for Fort Lauderdale but quickly became disillusioned when he was housed in an apartment with five Ecuadorian players who were much older and spoke no English.
“It just wasn’t working out,” he said.
Smith went to Harrisburg, but got there too late in the season to earn playing time. He left of his own accord after watching foreign players receiving buckets of money to play while Americans sat.
In 2014, Smith played for the Trenton Rebels in the National Capital Soccer League and quickly was promoted to the ASL’s Delaware Stars, where he was teamed with Nuel for the 2015-16 season.
‘It is progressing steadily, it’s not like it’s up and down. I’ve constantly been taking strides in right direction.’
Nuel played Division I soccer at the University of Delaware. He graduated in 2015 and immediately afterward went to play for a third-division team in Bulgaria. Visa issues prompted his return home after four months. He joined the Stars, but the franchise folded shortly after he and Smith arrived.
Nuel then played for the Ocean City Nor’easters of the USL’s Premiere Development League for the summer of 2016. In August, he was contacted by the Fury, who had seen him play for Delaware, and Nuel joined Philadelphia for the fall season. He then suggested the club pick up Smith.
“I know what Dylan’s capable of; I trained with him a few times with the Rebels,” Nuel said. “I’ve gotten to know his dad from teaching with him (at the Bob Smith Soccer Academy). I built a better relationship with Dylan from that, so they brought him here.”
The two are preparing for the Fury’s fall season, but their ultimate goal is to move onward and upward. The next step up would be the NASL or USL, with the ultimate in America being to play for a club in Major League Soccer. If that doesn’t happen, there are numerous options playing for foreign teams.
“My main goal is to get back overseas,” Nuel said. “I just see more opportunity over there for my type of play. I think it went well when I was in Bulgaria. For the most part. I like the culture, I like to be challenged a little bit in terms of living and lifestyle. It’s a great experience.”
Smith has the same outlook, saying he would love to go back overseas after a great experience in Argentina. But if the MLS came calling, he would jump at the chance.
One advantage Smith could have is connections through his dad. But he refuses to go that route. The last thing he wants to hear is, “Yeah, he’s only there because of his father.”
“I’ve never wanted to make it somewhere because of somebody else,” Smith said. “I’ll do it on my own or I won’t do it on my own. I’m not going to ask for help. I’ve seen other people do that in other sports throughout the years, and I don’t see anything positive coming from that. So, I’m gonna do it on my own. I’m just fighting through the ranks here of the U.S. soccer leagues, trying to climb the ladder.”
At ages 27 and 24, Smith and Nuel are each happy with where they are at in their careers.
“It is progressing steadily, it’s not like it’s up and down,” Smith said. “I’ve constantly been taking strides in right direction. I work and teach kids at my dad’s academy, that allows me to train in Philly. I get paid to play. Right now it’s pretty good money. I’m enjoying what I’m doing.”
And both will keep striving to enjoy it at higher levels.