Myself and Justin have something in common in that we're both rookies for Real Salt Lake. Me, I'm the rookie here at RSL Soapbox, coming up to 6 months with the wonderful team here. Justin was picked up about the same time I was during the 2017 MLS Draft in the second round. In fact, one of my first pieces was on the young defender. I'm an admitted fan of his, and most of the draft picks RSL have made recently so when I had the chance to talk to him for RSL Soapbox I didn't hesitate.
Schmidt played "pretty much everything" growing up in New Mexico he told me and "eventually found that soccer was the one I liked the most", becoming part of the Washington Huskies team from 2012. It was there he realized he could maybe become an MLS player when he graduated from college.
“There was definitely a moment in college when I realized that,” he said. “My coach actually pulled me aside and it was after my red-shirt freshman year — I red-shirted my freshman year — so after the first year of playing my coach brought me aside and told me, ‘Yeah, fantastic year. Originally, I thought you were just going to be a good college player but now after watching you for a year you could be a good MLS player.’ That was when I finally clicked and I was like, ‘Oh, well maybe I can do it!’”
With each year, the bio sheet gets longer for Justin thanks to his continued performance and as the program grew from what it was to what it is now.
Speaking more about the program in Washington, Justin recalled, "When I first got (to Washington), it was only my head coaches second year there, so it was much like what Mike (Petke) is dealing with. You have a lot of players and coaching staff that aren't yours and you have to figure out what type of system is going to work with these players, so I watched it go from being a system that he wanted to work around the players to a system that he wanted that the players needed to become a part of and they were the players he recruited."
He became a central part of that team, playing almost every game and locking down a starting position right away.
He shared that he owed a lot of the work ethic that got him here to his parents and the way he was raised.
"My parents, that's how they raised us. It doesn't matter what you're doing, you have to give every last bit of effort you have in everything you do," he said.
That work ethic earned him several All-Pac-12 honors but even in the face of success he hasn't let it change his focus. Obviously proud of the nod, he still admitted that those honors don’t prove anything.
"It's like a good pat on the back but to me it doesn't change what you need to do, it doesn't matter how many of those you get your job is the exact same and if you get those award then slack off for a little bit those awards mean nothing, you have to prove it for your entire career."
That's the one thing I got from this whole talk with him. His desire to just work hard and give the maximum he can give every session. He mentioned it several times not to brag but just to ground things to reality. Here's a guy that got thrown into the mix over and over again, did well against Chicago and earned praise from a lot of people, who was down as a first round pick in many mock drafts and whenever you try to tell him that he's getting some praise he falls back on the mantra of working even harder now. It's something RSL has thrived on, the team is the star, and a guy like Schmidt doesn't want to be the one in the spotlight from what I could tell — but rather the one sharing it with his teammates.
Plenty of focus was on the draft this year as two expansion teams were lining up to make some picks and there was a lot of discussion about who would be picked where. As MLS grows bigger there's even more focus on the Combine and on the college game but when I asked, Justin admitted he didn't pay any attention to it.
"I actually didn't look at any of that,” he said. “I stay away from MLS site, from RSL sites now just to avoid anything, I don't want to get down on myself if it doesn't go well or get too big of a head and honestly whatever is written it won't affect how I play on the field so I honestly just stay away from it all."
It one thing I'd noticed about college soccer in comparison with college football, soccer is under the radar while the football is played in front of thousands and watched by millions more. I asked Justin about the lack of media in the college game and the benefit and he agreed.
"While in college, if you're having to deal with numerous media outlets then it would take away time from school because it's not like you have all the time in the world,” he said. “Your days are very structured and you're going from whatever, from class to practice to class then homework and any extra curricular stuff that some people have. If you add the media onto that it would have been stressful especially for the younger guys who can find even that routine overwhelming at first."
On the combine itself, Justin said he had "a blast" at it but on the day of the draft he was at home when Real Salt Lake called his number with the 35th pick in the second round and while excited he said the magnitude of it hadn’t quite hit him.
"It hadn't quite hit me that this would be the next stage in my life,” he said. “I understood it but sitting down and watching the draft with friends and not doing anything differently, and you hear your name called and now you go, ‘OK, I guess I'm part of that organization now.’”
Being the second pick RSL made didn't bother him either as his level headed nature kept him grounded.
"I honestly don't know I gave it much thought where I would go in the draft,” he said. “Of course everybody wants to go first, but it was like, ‘if I get picked then I can show up and prove I deserve to be there.’”
Reagan Dunk ended up being the first pick ,and while the Salt Lake media team made a big story of Dunk with its video coverage, the two both came in with the same attitude. I asked him if they are getting on well after coming from the same draft. He revealed, "We're actually room mates so we're hanging out daily, he's a great guy. We're both along the same lines of ‘well, we got here now we gotta work hard.’"
Of course, neither man would have expected to be getting first team minutes so early in the league, but that's what happened, with Justin making his debut against Chicago when paired with David Horst.
Admittedly, he was "a little nervous and it was a little overwhelming" to know he was starting the first game he did really well, even if it wasn't part of the plan.
"From talking with the coaches I don't think that was the plan,” he said when asked further. “I think originally the plan was to go to the Monarchs and grab some time there but because of injuries, it had to be."
He's realistic about the chances in front of him now too and he's grabbed some first team minutes which would make any player hungrier for much but Schmidt understands his role at the club well.
"It's a tricky balance understanding that I had a chance to play,” he said. “But I'm also still a rookie, so there's a lot to still learn and a lot of older guys with more experience, and you have to understand both of those without letting one gain ground on the other."
It's that learning that RSL wants Schmidt to keep doing in each session and clearly one they believe he can, now having started 5 games with Salt Lake. The pressure of playing in the league while still learning to be part of the league is tough on everybody but Schmidt's approach is as balanced as his nature. On his goals for the year he summed it up as, "more of me wanting to see improvement in the important parts of my game, the parts that the coaches are helping me with."
As well as a slew of coaches and a head coach that demands hard work out of his players, Schmidt is surrounded by a wealth of knowledge and that is shared with players often. I asked him what it's like to be on a team with so many young guys and how it work in terms of sharing that knowledge and he told me just how well the team is getting on.
"I definitely think that it's the veteran players who are doing more of the teaching, but even the younger guys have the national experience so they have plenty to contribute,” he said. “They pick and choose their times correctly when they think they can chime in which is great and the veteran guys are always, always trying to help."
We talked for about half-an-hour, but the one thing I took away from this interview was just how down to earth he is. There's no ego, no entitlement just because he's started a few games. I had no agenda with this interview, there was no desire to grill him about performance and to be honest even if there was you can tell from his demeanor that there's nothing I could say that he wouldn't have already known himself. Here's a guy who just wants to work, work every day and take every chance he gets with Real Salt Lake and it comes over within minutes. If Justin Schmidt the footballer can become as exemplary as Justin Schmidt the man (and there's no reason to think he couldn't) then RSL may have found a centre back we can rely on for years.