This site has frequently covered the different paths that Minnesotan soccer players have taken in pursuit of that dream of professional football, with stories that take us to every corner of the globe. One pathway that has been touched on only lightly, however, is the football opportunities abound in Scandinavian countries.
This is the pathway chosen by former Minneapolis City and University of Wisconsin Green Bay man Ian Smith, a part of his story that takes him from the fields of Minnesota and Wisconsin to the pitches of Norway, playing for a small club in one of Europe’s great capitals. That club is Oppsal IF.
Oppsal, a small club based in Oslo, have had a history moving up and down the Norwegian football pyramid, particularly in its third and fourth tiers. The club currently plays in the 3. Divisjon, which is confusingly Norway’s fourth division. As recently as 2019, the club played in the 2. Divisjon, which is the nation’s third tier.
Smith’s journey to Oppsal would start back in Minneapolis, where he would be introduced to the game through local parks and rec soccer, before climbing up the developmental ladder with the help of Minneapolis United and the Minnesota Thunder Academy.
“I grew up in Minneapolis, South Minneapolis. When I was really young, I was probably four or five, your parents sign you up for just a typical, local park league. Minneapolis United had like a little recreational league for when you’re like really young… I started to play in that and I think parents started to notice that I was quite good at it and I really enjoyed it from the start. Neither of my parents come from a football background at all… As I got a little older, I went to Minneapolis United, that was my first real club… I was probably like fourteen when I left Minneapolis United and I went to the Minnesota Thunder Academy, the development academy at the time. Through high school I played with them… I played with some really quite good players at the time, we had some decent teams.”
That youth experience, which included playing with familiar names like the Jackson Yueill, would then help Smith get into college soccer with the University of Wisconsin Green Bay. The NCAA Division I school was not his first choice, but proved to be a good home.
“When you play with high profile players like this, when you got to say, showcases and stuff with the development academy, a lot of high profile coaches come to watch your games. It’s not just like your local universities… [originally] I didn’t even think of Green Bay as an option, I was recruited originally by a much bigger school… It didn’t work out for different reasons and so I had nothing going into my senior year and usually guys are committed by their senior year. Then I got an email from Green Bay that summer… My dad was like, yeah you should look at it, you can’t rule anything out, so I ended up going on a visit and I was sold right away.”
Smith would earn a strong record with Green Bay, hitting the ground running and particularly coming into form after his freshman year. From 2017 to 2019, his sophomore to senior seasons, he appeared in 48 matches for the college, starting 44. Operating out of the midfield, Smith would score a goal in 2017 and make four assists across 2018 and 2019, but a large share of his work in the several thousand minutes played at Green Bay took place off the ball.
Ian Smith’s Minneapolis City connection would start before he joined Green Bay, but his time at the club would proceed to parallel his time in college to great effect. Becoming Minneapolis City’s first youth player, joining from the Minnesota Thunder Academy at the age of 17, Smith would prove to be a key piece across the early years of Minneapolis City. Playing with them even in the old Premier League of America (PLA) days, Smith would accumulate 45 appearances, with 39 starts for the Crows.
“I got into Minneapolis City when I was in high school… I was probably something like 17 when I started to train with them when they first formed, maybe just turned 18. I was one of the youngest guys and that was a great way to step into college because I had that entire summer of just playing against men… As someone that was born in Minneapolis, raised in Minneapolis, spent my whole life in Minneapolis, to play for a club that exclusively seems to represent everything Minneapolis is about was really appealing to me. I felt a deeper synergy to the club like right away. I loved my time there, so so much, all the seasons I played there were amazing, all of them.”
His initial run with the club would end in 2018, before joining the Green Bay Voyageurs of USL League Two for 2019, where he played six games and made four starts for a combined 364 minutes, only losing one match.
“I think it’s a great thing because the one fault of each of those organizations is that their not full seasons and I think when you have both of them together you get about a full season of matches. You get eighteen to twenty in college and you get around fifteen or so in summer ball if you stay healthy and play all the games. So in total that’s about thirty five matches and that’s quite a healthy amount to play. But if you don’t have both of those side by side, you know, you’re missing out on half a season. For me, I want to be on the pitch as much as possible because training is one thing, and I love to train and work hard and get down and grind, but the one thing that’s an invaluable experience is match time.”
Smith added that the differences in style and tone between college and NPSL matches provided a well rounded variety of experience to his game, with one providing a very physical, collegiate experience, while the other made him learn to play with and against older and more tactically mature players.
“Sometimes in am NCAA match, the pace can be really quick and frantic, and its like, pretty athletic, but sometimes it might not be as much of a tactical battle. Then you go back to the NPSL, I guess I’ll use an example. In 2021, the final game we played against Cleveland, was maybe not played at a lightning pace but tactically there was a lot of elements to it because you’re playing against grown men. So having both of those side by side was really good, especially when you’re like, 19 or 20. You learn a lot from that stuff.”
Smith would return in 2021 to help City to a third consecutive NPSL North title, having helped them win their first one in 2018. In total, according to the Minneapolis City archives as provided by Director of Player Personnel Jon Bisswurm, he scored one goal for the Crows and made ten assists across those seasons. He played 2736 minutes for the club.
“I think it’s hard to fully explain what it means, because I’m really proud of being from Minneapolis, and to help your city’s club achieve some pretty special things, we had an undefeated season, two league titles, those are things that things that nobody can really take away from you. Especially to do it for a club that’s so well supported is amazing because at the end of the day you’re representing something much bigger than yourself or even just a team of 25 guys from Minnesota. You’re representing something just a little bit more.”
Smith, shortly after the end of his last season with Minneapolis City, would be off to Oslo, Norway to start a new adventure, one that would eventually lead him to Oppsal IF.
“I started to do trials with the USL in the spring because I had finished going to school but had like three credits left to do online, so I was pretty much done in December, half a year early. So I was like traveling around and I think like, for a lot of guys, it’s like if you don’t get picked in the MLS draft, it’s such a dog eat dog world out there. It’s so difficult, and US football in the lower professional leagues is so hap hazard… By the time the pandemic pulled around, I had nothing… I felt really stuck, I felt really alone, and I didn’t really have any options and I didn’t really know what to do. It was a pretty difficult time, actually, to keep yourself motivated, but I was still training all the time.”
Amid the difficulties he faced, Smith turned to advice he’d received months earlier while still in college to find answers for his footballing dreams.
“I remember I had this conversation with my assistant coach [at Green Bay] right before I left in December of 2019, and he told me about this opportunity from a guy he knows over in Norway. I totally forgot about it until all this happened and then I decided to reach out again and asked for the guy’s number… We decided to work it out in 2020 and moved here in 2021. It’s a pretty interesting set up because along with playing football I’m also doing my master’s degree because it’s free and it helps get a nice visa for staying, so it was a perfect way to get your master’s degree and create your football career in Europe, which is something I’ve wanted since I was a little kid.”
That 2021 season would see Oppsal finish sixth of fourteen teams in one of the league’s several groups, earning nineteen points from a shortened thirteen match season. Smith would manage to play a role that year despite his fresh arrival, making nine appearances for the first team and an additional appearance for Oppsal’s reserve side in the fifth tier.
“Everything in life is totally different when you decide to do something like this. I’ve always been pretty good at just taking this as they are and rolling with the punches, so I think I adjusted really well… When I came here, I didn’t actually have a contract signed, I had a team that was really interested and I had to do a couple weeks on trial… It just didn’t fit me. Then I got a chance to go to Oppsal. After, I think it was two days, I felt so comfortable, I felt much more in place with the team. The coach, my first coach who isn’t with us now, he made it really apparent after two days that he wanted to sit down and sign me and bring me for the rest of the season.”
Smith told Sota Soccer that the adjustment to the 3. Divisjon, and living in Oslo as a whole, has been an interesting one, but also that the style of the game has provided a great opportunity to learn and grow.
“The US has a huge emphasis on physicality and I would say, maybe individual ability. I would say a lot of teams in the US aren’t quite as organized per say as some European clubs. So when I came here, the sessions are so much more based on your technical ability and your tactical understanding. I mean, we’re doing sessions and one of my current coaches who I’m really quite fond of, he’ll dissect absolutely everything about your positioning. Are you equal distance to the center of the center circle, if you haven’t looked over your shoulder would you turn or do you just play the way you’re facing, can you see three corner flags when you receive the ball, just little tiny things.”
As for life in Oslo, Smith has plenty of good to say about his new home, but admitted that at first it was difficult learning how to live in Norway’s capital on the spot.
“Outside of the pitch, just like, in life, it definitely takes some time because you know, you read road signs and they’re not in the language you can read right away and you go to the grocery store and you have to translate what the food is because you don’t quite know how to say, peppers, for example… It took awhile at first, but I think after a month or two I was really comfortable here.”
2022 would provide Smith with the chance to play a fully prepared and full length season with Oppsal, an opportunity he has taken kindly to.
As of the writing of this article, Smith has made 28 first team appearances and six reserve appearances for Oppsal, who are currently in ninth place of fourteen. All of this with the interesting context that Oppsal changed groups, which are akin to smaller MLS conferences in 2022, joining Group 1 after several seasons in Group 2 of six. This means that in 2022, the club faced a completely different cast of clubs and characters.
As for what comes next, Smith is positive about his playing career, but also his growing coaching profile. The Minneapolis-native currently holds a head coaching role with his club’s U15 team.
“After this year, I can have another season here, and after that I guess I kind of have to figure out what I want to do. When I was in the US, before I came here, I did a lot of coaching as well… I’m coaching one of the youth teams at Oppsal as well, the U15’s… I want to keep playing as long as possible, at whatever level I can and I’ve always told myself that. So, I want to stay true to that and play as long as I can at the very, very best level I can… I do know I want to be a coach when I’m done playing… I want to keep playing and if I can mix that with coaching [like I do now], that’s perfect.”
Oppsal’s next match, as of the publishing of this article on September 6th, will be at home against relegation favorites IF Ready on September 10th.