A goalie from Iola, Kansas plays professional football in Sweden
When he was young, Royce Smith made a commitment to himself: the kid from the small town of Iola, Kansas, decided he would play football at the highest level possible.
It didn’t matter that he was undersized for a goalie or that he and his mom had to drive hours to Overland Park and Lawrence just to play in youth soccer leagues that didn’t exist in Iola.
And it certainly doesn’t bother Smith that he had to play years in semi-pro and lower level pro teams to earn an opportunity.
“I sort of tuned in to myself at a young age, like, ‘Hey, we’re going to do this at the highest level possible,'” Smith said. “Whether amateur, semi-pro, professional, world level. Either way, I’m just gonna keep doing this.
Smith, 20, is currently the starting goalkeeper for northern Swedish club IFK Umeå, who play in Division 4, the sixth tier of the Swedish football system. In his club’s current 12-game unbeaten streak, Smith has eight shutouts.
He said he was hitting his stride as a goalkeeper, three years after making his professional football debut at 17 while finishing his high school diploma online.
Smith played five months with Canadian club Serbian White Eagles FC as a reserve. Then came three months with Belizean club Altitude FC and a chance to play for IFK Umeå in March 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic altered his chances of playing abroad.
“I’ve had a lot of doubts since COVID started with the travel ban,” Smith said. “It’s not that bad now, but it was for a while.”
Unable to return to Sweden, Smith returned home. He was kicked out of Michigan Stars FC’s third-tier American football team and traveled to Belfast to play in a Northern Ireland semi-professional league.
In Belfast, his morale plummeted: the “nasty” heckling of fans affected his morale, he said.
“I really had nowhere to go for a while there,” Smith said. “It was quite frustrating to see my international friends go out and find new professional offers.
“And then also seeing some of my American friends who were a little older than me who played with me and seeing them say, ‘Yeah, well, I’m going to throw in the towel – I’m 25, I want get on with my life because it’s too hard for me. I wondered if maybe I was going to end up in that crowd.
The Iola product faced his doubts by devoting himself to his training, both physically and mentally. Smith said he spoke daily with a Finnish sports psychologist who offered to continue working with him after he left the team.
Those conversations helped pull him out of a “dark place” that came from uncertainty in his career, Smith said. When he was able to return to Sweden this season, his spirits had returned.
“Honestly, it’s probably one of the best feelings I’ve had in terms of football-related feelings,” Smith said. “It’s just kind of like a really big, warm community welcoming me back.”
Smith doesn’t know where his love of soccer came from, how a kid from the small town of Iola ended up dedicating his career to playing the sport overseas. When he first played football at the age of 5, he said he really liked playing defense and doing the dirty work.
But despite his early love for the game, Smith only played recreationally until age 14. There were no youth leagues in Iola.
“Maybe it was just like – you want what you can’t have,” Smith said. “And for me it was like, ‘Hey, I’ve waited so long to play football at a competitive level.’ It was always recreational, and it was always just for fun.Then the time when I had other people pushing me, I really enjoyed it a lot.
However, there is one thing Smith is sure of: he will play as long as his body allows.
“I want to keep going for as long as possible,” Smith said. “Until the wheels fall off.”