“It really is a dream come true”

The evidence suggested to Noel Mooney that his housemate, Pádraig Smith, was searching for a new destination.

It soon became obvious where he wanted to end up.

The most transparent clues could be found in Smith’s streaming setup inside the Irish compatriots’ apartment in Nyon, Switzerland: In the bathroom, a tablet aired MLB games, while the living room TV displayed NFL Sundays and the kitchen was home to a third device devoted is Major League Soccer.

“I don’t know how to explain this,” said Mooney, then a coworker of Smith’s with European soccer governing body UEFA in the early 2010s. “He almost was stateside in his mind.”

The seeds to move were planted during a series of visits to the US during Smith’s formative years. Once the right opportunity arrived, he set aside his financial analyst gig at UEFA and made the leap across the Atlantic to take over as sporting director of the Colorado Rapids.

Now the club’s executive vice president and general manager, Smith has found a home on the Front Range. And to understand what made him a steward of soccer sustainability and shrewd roster builder, one only needs to look at the experiences that led him to Commerce City.

* * *
The eldest of six, Smith grew up in Mornington, County Meath, a coastal village of 11,000 nestled in between the Irish Sea and River Boyne estuary. As in so many Irish households, sports was a focal point from an early age.

Gaelic Athletic Association games – hurling and Gaelic football – rule the roost in County Meath. The game’s roots date all the way back to the 1880s, and the communal bonds are so strong (54 clubs for 220,000 residents) that it can be difficult to look past anything shoe the GAA. The Smith family all played, but Pádraig kept getting pulled back to soccer.

His interest in the sport coincided with a golden era for Irish soccer. The national team reached three major finals between the 1980s and early ’90s, and the country’s best players were making waves with England’s most iconic clubs. He also found an unrivaled sense of belonging while supporting his local team Drogheda United.

There was just one problem: Many of the teams he followed close to home were struggling to stay afloat.

“We’re all products of our environment and we’re all products of our experiences,” Smith told The Post earlier this season. “My introduction to sport came about because clubs were going bankrupt at the time. … That’s truly why I got into sport.

“… I don’t think you can have a strong club and I don’t think you can have a strong league if they are not financially viable for the long term. I believe the very foundations should be built on youth development and community. Those are two things that are critically important. “

***
In the late 2000s, UEFA was in the midst of drafting a blueprint of new regulations to prevent teams from over-spending, known as Financial Fair Play. The organization knew just the person to add to the steering committee: an up-and-coming Smith.

Smith rose quickly through the ranks at the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) and became a representative at continental meetings. Once on the committee, he ostensibly represented Europe’s smaller countries while across the table was a representative of the big five – England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain. The back-and-forth discussions proved vital for the final framework.

In 2007, he joined the FAI as an internal compliance officer after spending five years at Ernst and Young as an audit manager. His task was to take a deep dive into the grim League of Ireland financial picture and implement a quasi-salary cap to keep clubs from folding. At the time, Irish teams were hemorrhaging money, spending a European-high 96% of club income on player salaries. Staying afloat got so problematic that key members, including Smith, addressed the Irish parliament on the matter.

Smith relied on his knowledge of American sports leagues’ use of salary caps and succeeded in reforming the association’s payroll structure down to 65% club income toward player salaries. In 2008, it became the first European soccer body where mandatory salary cap regulations worked.

Years earlier, Smith observed how baseball teams utilized data to more accurately assess players’ value – a discovery made after he spent the summer of 1999 on Cape Cod via a J1 visa.

“It was definitely (through) baseball and understanding that if you dug deeper, you could see things that would give you an advantage,” he said. “… There’s an inquisitiveness to find out why you could learn more underneath the surface and why a player could be perceived in two completely different camps.”

Smith went on to be acting Head of Finance for the FAI from 2010-2011 and later a financial analysis manager at UEFA where he worked on Financial Fair Play until 2014.

Dr. Helen Raftery, CEO of non-profit Junior Achievement Ireland and a lecturer in sports governance at University College Dublin, worked with Smith as director of strategic development at FAI. She remembers his fresh perspective.

“(Pádraig) could see that there was a lot of stuff that needed to be overcome,” Raftery said. “That didn’t stop him from seeing yeah, there is a different future here, a better outcome we can go for. I think that mix of having the capacity to dream and see things longer-term and strategically, as well as being, I mean, forensically-interested in detail … that’s a really unusual mix. “

***
Just shy of five years after “The Rapids Way” op-ed in The Post landed on driveways across Colorado, Smith has the club in a healthy, vibrant spot.

The Athletic highlighted many of his attributes in its annual anonymous MLS executive survey. Smith was recognized as one of the easiest executives to work with, but also the toughest negotiator. Unsurprisingly, the Rapids were named “the team that does most with least.”

There could be no better compliment for Smith.

“The way we talk about this is that it’s (coach) Robin (Fraser) and the coaching staff’s job to win Saturday-to-Saturday,” Smith said. “It’s my job to prepare us year-to-year.”

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