By Brian Maurer
Photo courtesy of Andrew Seidler/LMU
Charlotte FC traded into the first round of the SuperDraft to pick Smalls 14th overall. Here is a report on what the young winger should bring to The Crown.
Smalls is a strong dribbler, willing to take on multiple players during his carries. Many times in the playoff games against West Virginia and against James Madison he receives a pass near the halfway line and carries the ball past multiple defenders and into the box.
Another valuable part of Smalls’ technical game is his ability to make a strong turn into space (visual example in the "Progressive attacking play" section below). He has the awareness to know where the space is opening up and can receive the pass with a defender draped over him and make the right decision on where to turn with the ball to free up space for himself.
Progressive attacking play
Smalls brings many different skills that help progress possession phases into dangerous attacks. In the below graphic, you can see Smalls receive the ball inside LMU’s half with a defender on his back. He makes the progressive touch-and-turn into space and immediately picks out a switch pass to the left winger. After making the long switch pass he moves into space between the backpedaling lines at the top of the box ready to receive a return pass. You can see the movement, touch, attacking awareness, and passing ability that Smalls can bring to help progress attacks all within this one sequence.
Smalls was asked to play multiple roles during the Quarterfinal playoff matchup against West Virginia. While he looks most natural on the wing he was also asked to play more centrally as a striker at times. He can play on both wings and looked equally comfortable on either side. He is also technical with both feet, capable of making long switch passes with his left, even if he prefers his right for set pieces. His technical ability with both feet allows him to play multiple attacking roles anywhere on the field.
Smalls has a strong shooting ability, especially from outside the box. Against James Madison in the Round of 16, he can be seen taking his time and placing a shot from outside the 18. Against West Virginia in the Quarterfinal, he put a free kick from just outside the area on target. His stats on the season show that he puts 52% of his total shots on target (SoT). This number is above his team's average.
If he can get that number to translate to the professional level he should find plenty of success. For perspective, one of the best wingers in MLS is Facundo Torres, and his SoT in 2023 was 35%. MLS is a big step up with a massive learning curve. If Smalls keeps ripping the lower percentage looks on target this would be a good indicator that he can adapt as a professional winger.
Areas for improvement
Work rate - In the later stages of the Quarterfinal matchup versus West Virginia, his running out of possession and willingness to defend and press seemed to dwindle. A higher work rate will likely be needed for him to succeed at the next level. This can be improved in the gym and at training with the right motivation from coaching if Smalls is also receptive to it.
Decision-making - Making quicker and more sound decisions and finding the open space in the box is another area he could improve. Occasionally he would make a run towards the post or an area in the box where a teammate already was. Decision-making, especially in the final thirds, is a common area for improvement for young developing players. Time and reps can be a big help in making those adjustments.
Defending - His willingness to support defensively was also lacking. There appeared to be several opportunities when LMU was down against West Virginia where he could have helped press the ball or try and get a takeaway with a double team. Part of this could have been a tactical decision by the coach. The coach may have preferred to keep Smalls a bit higher for counter-attacks, but in Charlotte, the expectation will be to help the team take the game back when they are down by winning possession quickly when it's lost. Smalls needs to improve these qualities to earn meaningful minutes for Charlotte FC.