Two years ago, Smith Hunter was on the outside looking in. The young soccer player from Seattle had recently been cut during tryouts for a local club team. Her dreams of playing soccer at the highest levels were halted, at least temporarily.
But Hunter is a fighter — she always has been — and she didn’t let that barrier stop her.
Hunter battled to earn a spot with the Reign Academy in 2016, and just a few years later, the young defender has started for the United States in the opening two matches of the U-17 Women’s World Cup, which kicked off for the U.S. on Wednesday, November 15.
A Fighting Spirit
For Reign Academy Technical Director Kim Calkins, Hunter’s ability to rise above adversity comes as no surprise. The defender has always played like she had something to prove.
“Smith has a big personality on the field, and she’s a fighter. She will work so hard in a training session. She’ll work hard every game. She’ll make a run to the end line to get on the end to whip it across, and then she’ll sprint just as fast all the way back to defend the net,” Calkins shared.
The tenacity that Hunter brings on the pitch may be just the kind of player needed to lead the U.S. in the U-17 World Cup, which takes place in Uruguay November 13 - December 1. This U.S. team hopes to overcome disappointing youth performances in recent years. Where the U.S. was once dominant at all levels, other countries’ investments in development on the women’s side have begun to catch up. The U-20 USWNT was eliminated during the group stage of the World Cup earlier this year.
Playing in Group C, the U.S. has to get past three tough sides in Cameroon, Korea DPR, and Germany. Having a player like Hunter can only be a boost for the team, which opened the tournament with a 3-0 win against Cameroon before falling to North Korea. Hunter’s grit and leadership will be needed as the team faces off against Germany on November 21.
“She has an uncanny ability to demand quality of herself and her teammates, is one of the first people to acknowledge and encourage a great performance from someone else, will deliver an inspirational word to the team amidst disappointment, and bring a consistent work effort which is unrivaled,” Calkins said after one of Hunter’s previous U-17 national team call-ups.
Grateful for Every Opportunity
If Hunter plays with a fighting spirit on the field, her leadership comes from a humility and grace that honors her roots and the sacrifices her family — and the larger community around her — made to turn her dreams into reality.
In a video posted by U.S. Soccer, Hunter shared that her family hasn’t had much money, so her and her siblings would sell water and cookies outside Pike Place Market to help contribute to the high price of traveling youth soccer. For her, sacrifices like this, or the hour-long commute on the bus to get to school or training, have always been worth it. Soccer has been a way to escape financial issues and other problems.
And Hunter is grateful for every penny of support she’s received along the way.
“That really warmed our hearts that people would support us in our journey to keep traveling to these places,” Hunter said. “We’re so thankful for all the people that have supported us there. I feel like the only way I can repay them is by putting my heart into the game, competing every time I step onto the field.”
The Reign Academy’s Influence
She stays after practices to keep working. She always helps pick up equipment. She’s the first player to carry the ball bag. To boot, she is an incredible student who has committed to attend Harvard.
It’s safe to say that Hunter doesn’t lack any motivation, but helping her grow as a player and person is at the core of the Reign Academy’s mission. Her development and rise to this World Cup opportunity was a combination of her determination, the training she received through the Reign Academy, and the tough competition she saw while playing in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy.
“We believe balancing competition with development happens when you care for the individual. When you care for the individual or the player that we’re working with, you’re able to balance that a little bit more as far as teaching how to compete, and then making sure we’re teaching development,” Calkins said.
On the evening I connected with Calkins, the Reign Academy’s two youngest teams were having a classroom session on sports psychology and what it means to grow up as young women playing competitive sports. The Academy philosophy focuses on helping its players have tools to find a healthy balance between family, school, and soccer — all with an eye toward ensuring the players continue to love the sport.
“Soccer should be something that’s very fun for them,” Calkins said. “Even at a high level, it should be a lot of fun for them.”
The Pro Connection
The Reign Academy doesn’t just bare the name of its professional club partner, Seattle Reign FC. Many professional players make appearances at Academy practices to help with drills or offer advice. Bev Yanez and Megan Oyster are now assistant coaches for the Academy, and Yanez recently became one of 21 NWSL players to be selected for U.S. Soccer’s C License Coaching course.
For Calkins, having a women’s professional team in Seattle is not just important for the Reign Academy players — it’s important for girls across America to see the women blazing a path for them and watch what it takes to make it at the professional level. That local girls can get that just by heading to Memorial Stadium is an incredible opportunity to Calkins, who was part of the first professional league in the U.S.
“On any given day, there’s almost 10 national team players playing on a weekend pro game from the U.S. and the top countries around the world. Incredible players, and one of the things for girls’ soccer in our area, and the U.S. in general, is watching games to grow their soccer IQ. They have an incredible opportunity to watch some incredible players right here.”
Having Vlatko Andonovski involved with the Academy this year hasn’t changed the core of its philosophy and approach, which was developed under the leadership of former Reign FC head coach Laura Harvey. Andonovski, who had significant youth development experience prior to coming to Seattle, instead adds the same element he’s brought to the professional side: detail and precision.
“There are specific principles and tactics that we try to emphasize in each training, each game, each situation, whether it’s defending or whether it’s offensively. Those core items don’t change. One thing that is unique to Vlatko is that he’s very specific in the details, in breaking down to the finest detail of technique.”
Players like Hunter are also getting the opportunity to train with Andonovski and the first team, gaining an even greater understanding of what it takes to succeed at the highest professional level and getting that first-hand exposure to Andonovski’s read of the game.
So while it’s an uphill climb for the U.S. side, they have players like Hunter who know just how lucky they are to be representing their country — and aren’t about to let the opportunity slip without a fight.
“I feel like this crest represents all those people who have supported me, and I just need to fight for them. We just need to compete, stick to our principals, and battle it out on the field, and most of all, have fun, because this is a moment that we’ll cherish forever.”
Schedule and TV info
USA vs Cameroon
Wednesday, November 14
Result: 3-0 win
USA vs Korea DPR
Saturday, November 17
Result: 3-0 loss
USA vs Germany
Wednesday, November 21
12 PM PT