KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Ryan Smith was barely 18 years old when Arsène Wenger pointed down the bench and summoned the precocious winger into a League Cup quarterfinal match.
Arsenal trailed Manchester United 1-0 on a cold December night in 2004 when Smith – a little more than a year off his Gunner debut – entered the game in the 68th minute for an injured Arturo Lupoli.
“There were 85,000 people at Old Trafford against Arsenal,” he said, smiling at the memory. “It was a big game. I enjoyed that, even though we lost.”
Smith, who grew up only minutes from Arsenal's legendary stadium in Highbury, North London, may not have revenge on his mind when the Wizards meet the Red Devils in Sunday's exhibition match at Arrowhead Stadium. But he certainly understands the prestige that follows United wherever they go.
He was raised a Gunner and eventually made his way through Arsenal’s academy, giving Smith a unique perspective when it comes to the long-stretching rivalry between the North London club and their rivals in the industrial north.
The explosive striker, who leads Kansas City with six assists this season, even claimed to have given John O’Shea a “very hard time” while taking on United in the FA Cup as a member of Southampton a year-and-a-half ago.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to play against them two or three times,” Smith said. “There’s not really anything bad you can say about the club or the manager. They are a fantastic club.”
And despite not being able to count a victory against the Red Devils on his résumé, Smith said the only way to be successful against Sir Alex Ferguson’s men was to block out the weight of the occasion and prepare like any other match.
“It takes [guts],” Smith said of competing against United. “You have to give everything you’ve got even though they aren’t fully fit. Their technical ability will come through, definitely. You just approach it like any league game.”
Still, the reality is this isn’t just another game. This is Manchester United, and even Smith said he had a particular player he was looking forward to sharing the pitch with: Paul Scholes.
“For me,” he said, “he is one of the best players ever in football.”
As for Ferguson and his men, Smith said he was sure they weren’t looking past the competition in Major League Soccer, especially as they use this time to prepare for what promises to be a grueling domestic campaign.
United managed a 1-0 victory against the Philadelphia Union on Wednesday night after defeating Celtic 3-1 in Toronto last weekend. The Red Devils will likely have a formidable opponent in the Wizards, who are in midseason form.
“I’m sure that these teams know that MLS is nothing to not take serious,” Smith said. “There are some great players in this league as well. These guys, they know. They’re not stupid.”
And neither is Smith. He knows the league takes precedence, but that doesn’t mean the Gunner in him doesn’t want a result against United.
“I always want to win,” he said.