The evidence suggested to Noel Mooney that his roommate, Pádraig Smith, was looking for a new destination.
It soon became apparent where he wanted to end up.
The most transparent clues could be found in Smith’s streaming setup inside the fellow Irishman’s apartment in Nyon, Switzerland: In the bathroom, a tablet was streaming MLB games, while the living room television showed NFL Sundays and the kitchen housed a third device dedicated to Major League Soccer.
“I don’t know how to explain it,” said Mooney, then Smith’s colleague with UEFA, European football’s governing body, in the early 2010s. “He was almost in the United States in his mind.”
The seeds for the move were planted during a series of visits to the United States during Smith’s formative years. Once the right opportunity arrived, he put aside his job as a financial analyst at UEFA and made the leap across the Atlantic to take over the sporting direction 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 football sustainability steward and astute roster builder, just look at the experiences that led him to Commerce City.
* * *
The eldest of six children, Smith grew up in Mornington, County Meath, a coastal village of 11,000 people nestled between the Irish Sea and the estuary of the River Boyne. As in so many Irish homes, sport was front and center from an early age.
Gaelic Athletic Association games (hurling and Gaelic football) rule the roost in County Meath. The game’s roots date back to the 1880s and the community ties are so strong (54 clubs for 220,000 people) that it can be hard to look past anything. but the GAA. The Smith family all played, but Pádraig continued to be drawn back to football.
His interest in the sport coincided with a golden era for Irish football. The national team reached three major finals between the 1980s and early 1990s, and the country’s best players were making waves with England’s most iconic clubs. He also found an unparalleled sense of belonging while supporting his home side 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 the sport was because the clubs were bankrupt at the time. … That’s really why I got into the sport.
“…I don’t think you can have a strong club and I don’t think you can have a strong league if they’re not financially viable in the long term. I believe that the very foundation should be built on youth and community development. These are two things that are of crucial importance. »
In the late 2000s, UEFA was drafting new regulations to prevent teams from spending too much, known as Financial Fair Play. The organization knew the person to add to the steering committee: a promising Smith.
Smith quickly rose through the ranks of the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) and became a representative at continental meetings. Once on the committee, he ostensibly represented the smaller countries of Europe while opposite was a representative of the big five – England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain. The back and forth turned out to be crucial for the final frame.
In 2007, he joined the FAI as Head of Internal Compliance after spending five years at Ernst and Young as Head of Audit. His task was to dive deep into the dire financial situation of the League of Ireland and put in place a quasi-salary cap to prevent clubs from folding. At the time, Irish teams were haemorrhaging money, spending 96% of the club’s revenue, a European high, on player salaries. Staying afloat has become so problematic that key members including Smith have spoken to the Irish parliament about it.
Smith built on his knowledge of the use of salary caps by American sports leagues and successfully reformed the association’s payroll structure to 65% of club revenue for player salaries. In 2008, it became the first European football body where mandatory salary cap regulations operated.
Years earlier, Smith had observed how baseball teams were using data to more accurately gauge player worth — a discovery made after spending 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 edge,” he said. “…There is a curiosity as to why you might find out more below the surface and why a player might be seen on two completely different sides.”
Smith was then acting head of finance at the FAI from 2010 to 2011, then head of financial analysis at UEFA, where he worked on financial fair play until 2014.
Dr Helen Raftery, CEO of non-profit organization Junior Achievement Ireland and lecturer in sports governance at University College Dublin, worked with Smith as director of strategic development at the FAI. She remembers her new perspective.
“(Pádraig) could see there was a lot to overcome,” Raftery said. “It hasn’t stopped him from seeing yes there is a different future here, a better result that we can aim for. I think that mix of having the ability to dream and see things longer term and strategically, while being, I mean, interested in the forensic details… it’s a really unusual mix.
Just under five years after “The Rapids Way” editorial in The Post hit the aisles of Colorado, Smith has the club in a healthy and vibrant place.
Athletic highlighted many of his attributes in their anonymous annual survey of MLS leaders. 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 the most with the least.”
There couldn’t be a better compliment for Smith.
“The way we talk about it is it’s (Coach) Robin (Fraser) and the coaching staff’s job to win from Saturday to Saturday,” Smith said. “It’s my job to prepare us year after year.”
Since being appointed to his current role in 2018, Smith has been adamant in defining and implementing his vision. He fully admits he’s had to course correct, but with back-to-back playoff appearances and a third pitch out of the question this fall, a foundation has been laid.
From homegrown talents Yaya Toure and Darren Yapi to Diego Rubio, William Yarbrough, Jack Price and now Ralph Priso, Smith has taken savvy steps to improve player recruitment.
Auston Trusty, Sam Vines and Cole Bassett, who now all play in Europe, are concrete examples. Trusty arrived for $600,000 but was sold as part of the KSE family to Arsenal for $2 million, while the two Coloradans could be staples on the US men’s national team for years to come.
“I don’t think I could have imagined living in Mornington, it was the route I would have taken, but certainly from a young age I knew I wanted to play sports and I knew I wanted to be at the United States,” he said. “It’s amazing that these things come together and be the current goalkeeper for this club. It really is a dream come true in many ways.