As Canada Soccer’s Women’s National Team (CANWNT) suited up for the 2023 FIFA World Cup Australia & New Zealand this summer, Ontario Soccer has been highlighting the 15 players on the roster that were born and/or raised in the province we call home. Our “Made in Ontario” campaign aims to celebrate youth clubs across the province and inspire current players in the Ontario Soccer system to dream big.
In this final 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup-inspired Q&A, we learn about the early career of Olivia Smith. This up-and-comer was the youngest player on Canada's World Cup Roster at 18-years-old, and made her tournament debut during the team's final match versus Australia.
A few years ago, Olivia was actually the youngest player to ever debut for the senior national team at 15 years and 94-days-old. She was playing collegiately at Penn State University up until recently, but decided to forego her remaining NCAA eligibility to sign a professional contract with Portugal's Sporting CP.
We had a chance to speak with Olivia’s father last week about his daughter’s future in soccer, as well as her upbringing and early days in the sport. But first, we sit down with Marko Milanovic - Olivia’s former coach from North Toronto SC - to hear about his time working with the Made in Ontario superstar.
Coach Marko Milanovic - thank you so much for joining us today. How are you doing?
Doing great. Happy to be here.
Great. We recently interviewed the father of Olivia Smith - which our listeners can hear after our time today with you. Olivia's father Sean said, and I quote, that you are hands down one of the best coaches that he's ever come across. So, I want to talk a little bit about your coaching career. When did you decide that you wanted to become a soccer coach?
Like most players, when you see that you're not going to be able to play professionally, you're not going to be able to make a career out of playing, you start thinking about staying in the game in some capacity and coaching was the next best thing. I started fairly young. I took a team in 2009 when I was only 24 or 25 and never looked back.
So, you’re currently a men's coach, but we know that not too long ago you coached Olivia Smith. Can you tell us how old was Olivia when you coached her? Do you remember your first impression of her?
I think Liv was 12 or 13 when she came to the club and she was playing with my 2002 girls, which were two years older than her. The first time I saw her she was actually playing for someone else; I think she was playing for Markham at the time. They were playing against our girls, our younger girls, our 2003 girls. I was just finishing up my game and I was leaving the field and usually I stick around and watch a little bit of the next game as well, and yeah. I just saw this girl do some of the things that you couldn't really see in that age group. I stuck around and I started asking questions about who she was. And funny enough, next year she came to our tryouts, and we all went from there.
How long did you coach Olivia for?
I think I never stopped really, because even when she went to the Rex program and later on, she would always come by our sessions when she's available and train with my different groups, and boys, and all the girls. You know, she just wants to play. Players like that I never away. There's always a spot for her anytime she calls me. We find a session for her, she comes out, and nothing really changes. Even before this World Cup she trained with our boys a little bit. She tends to over train sometimes too, so I have to stop her, but yeah. She loves it and I love players like that too.
What have been some of your best memories over the years from coaching Olivia?
I mean, there's so many. There's so many when it comes to the soccer field. In the first season she scored 30 goals in 15 or 16 games and she was playing two years up. She scored five in one game and I think it was a left footed shot, right footed shot, header, volley, free kick – something like that. On the field, there were just so many.
Off the field, also a lot because she just loved to play. I really enjoyed how excited she was before games. She would dance before the warmups and listen to music and that kind of stuff. She just loved, loved playing.
Olivia Smith playing for the North Toronto Nitros. Photo courtesy of Sean Smith.
There was another one. We went to a CASL tournament in North Carolina. I think it was U15 or U16 at the time so Olivia would have been two years younger. And we had a little bit of free time so I asked the girls what they wanted to do. There was options to go to the mall and do some shopping, to go back to the hotel and relax, or there was an arcade nearby with some video games and stuff like that. Everyone other than Olivia picked the first two, which was shopping and resting. Olivia picked the arcade option, which again just showed how young she was, even though she was so good on the field.
I also picked the arcade, by the way.
It's a solid choice. I think I would do the same.
You talked a little bit about some of Olivia's amazing skills and talents that she brings to the field. If you could tell us specifically - what technical abilities does she bring to the game that sets her apart from other players?
Any coach would have told you that. She was just well above her age group. Even playing two years up, she was just exceptional. It's a mix of different things. Athletically, she was always amazing when it came to her power, speed, balance. Just physical literacy as a whole. She was always exceptional, so that was one. Technically, she was very, very proficient and her ability to strike the ball was just scary for people that hadn't seen her before. The first time seeing her shoot was always interesting to watch. It was a combination of things. And then you add to that her drive to win and her love to play. It's a really nice combination.
Was there a moment that you knew as a coach that Olivia wasn't your typical amateur player? That she was going to go really far with her career? Or was it something that you knew from the moment you saw her?
Olivia Smith suits up for Canada // @livysmithhh on Instagram
I would say the first time I saw her. I make those decisions pretty early and sometimes they're wrong. Most times they're they haven't been. Like I said, most coaches will tell you the same thing when it comes to Olivia. It was very, very obvious.
You said you’ve coached Olivia since she was pretty young, like a tween girl! How does it feel for you to see an athlete of yours succeed at the level that she is?
It's the best feeling, really. It goes back to one of the three things that I loved about coaching and being in soccer. If I had just a little part to do with that - a very, very little part, I totally understand that - I mean it's the best feeling. Now with her playing in the World Cup and hopefully many more things to come because I always tell people, you shouldn't be satisfied with this, you’ve got to strive for more, even though this is already an amazing achievement.
Did you happen to watch her debut in the Women's World Cup?
Yeah, of course. Yeah, it was exciting. It's too bad they're out. But it's part of the game, and I'm sure she's going to have many more.
For sure. It seems like Olivia is an amazing part of the next generation of Canada Soccer's Women's National Team. It's really exciting to see all of these amazing opportunities on the horizon for her. And, you know, we have the Olympic qualifiers coming up pretty soon, so onto the next one, right?
Thank you, Marko, for being with us today. I really appreciate your time.
Up next is our conversation with Olivia’s dad, Sean Smith, who has supported his daughter along every step of soccer journey. Sean joined us from his hotel room in Perth, Australia during the World Cup. He, his wife, and youngest daughter were Down Under supporting Olivia and her teammates in the tournament.
Olivia and her father, Sean Smith // @livysmithhh on Instagram
Sean Smith, thank you so much for connecting with us today, all the way from the other side of the globe. Tell me, how has your experience been so far at the FIFA Women's World Cup?
So far, it's been a dream come true for me seeing all this. I know for my wife and my other daughter here, Malia, it's been a dream so far. Just being able to interact with all the other parents and then seeing the excitement that everybody here in Australia has for this game. It's amazing to see.
It sounds amazing, and from what we see on TV, it looks amazing!
I want to say congratulations, by the way, to you and your family for getting a chance to be out there, and for all of Olivia's success. Can you tell us a little bit about what the last few years have been like for Olivia and the Smith family?
The last few years have been pretty tough, you know, with COVID. That's where it really was tough for her. But the last couple of years now, with university, coming back home, training back at home, and still being a part of Ontario with League1, you know it really helped her grow a lot in the game.
For sure. I'm sure these last few years have been a whirlwind. They have been for so many of us, but with so much going on in Olivia's life, I can't even imagine.
Can you tell us about Olivia's upbringing? We know that she was raised in Whitby and obviously soccer is a huge part of her life, but what else can you tell us? What was Olivia like as a kid?
Olivia was very driven. She always, always wanted more. She had a want and a hunger for the game that, at a young age, you kind of see that that's a little bit different.
It all started basically, like you said, in Whitby. We did House League out there and I coached her through House League. Then we just needed more. The team practice just wasn't enough. So, we would go out probably every day, do a lot of technical drills together, a lot of running, a lot of hills, a lot of speed ladders. That was just us.
On top of that, we would also go and try to find other places where people were teaching different things – striking, different types of technical ability. We would travel, you know, we'd go to Mississauga, we'd go to Brampton, 6 o'clock a in the in the morning and she's waking up as a 7 or 8-year-old and traveling just to train in the mornings. A lot of times she would miss out on birthdays, hanging out, sleepovers with her friends and stuff like that. But we just didn't do it. There was a focus that she had at such a young age that, you know, I don't know if anybody else had that type of discipline.
That focus, determination, and discipline - does she still carry all of those same qualities with her, and if so, how have those qualities developed over time, or how have they maybe changed over time?
The hunger and the and the want to learn is still there. That’s the thing. Olivia played in Whitby, she played in Oshawa, she played in Ajax, she played in Markham, she went to North Toronto, and then that's when she got pulled into the national system. The reason why those moves were made for her was because she was always looking for more. And that's what I see to this day. To this day, she needs to have something to strive for all the time. She needs that push. She has something that has been a pleasure to watch and a pleasure to help her in – always trying to find her something else that adds to her game, whether it be training with boys, whether it be playing with different styles of coaching, that's what really drives her.
You mentioned all the different clubs that Olivia had a stint with in her youth days. Would you be able to pick out a couple of those or a couple of coaches that she worked with over her time in the Ontario Soccer system? If there was any club or any coach that had a special impact or was especially influential on Olivia's career, who would that be?
Young Olivia Smith. Photo courtesy of Sean Smith.
There's always these turning points in players’ careers that you see when things kind of changed for them. When [Olivia] went to Ajax, she had a coach named Michelle White that really pushed her with the physical and the fitness part of it. She was always very technical. Everyone knew Olivia already for her striking ability and power with her left and right. But it was the fitness component where Michelle White in Ajax and the players on that Ajax team that really changed Olivia. That's my opinion from what I've seen.
I think another big part and a coach that is very near and dear even to this day was in North Toronto. His name is Marko Milanovic who hands down is one of the best coaches that I've ever been around. Of course, once she left, Joey Lombardi from the from NDC is another person that is very near and dear and has helped instrumentally in her development. For me, I think when it comes to coaches in the Ontario system, those three are the ones that stand out to me.
That's great to know. We like to always give recognition to the coaches and the clubs in our system that help create these amazing talents
I would like to say that those are the coaches that stood out to me.
Now, there are a lot of coaches from each one of those clubs that she's learned from and I don't want to disrespect anybody at all. There there's been a lot of coaches throughout her career that have really helped out.
Yeah, of course. Every coach has something to offer. I feel like every athlete takes something from everybody that they work with, but some have a deeper impact than others for a variety of reasons. Thank you for calling out three people who had an impact on Olivia's career, I think that's great. And it's clear that there's a lot of people who have had a hand in it.
You talked about the turning points in a player's career when you can see that they're taking things in a different direction. What would you say was the moment or the time that you knew that your daughter was going to be something really special in the world of soccer?
Just watching when we would go out to the field, just doing the same stuff and training over and over. You could see that she wanted a lot more than what I could offer and what anybody else in our little circle could offer. When I saw those things, and the hunger, and the want in her, then just seeing what we call the “killer instinct” that she had at such a young age. All she wanted to do was put the ball in the back of the net.
It started with just her scoring goals, but then I'd say by the age of probably nine you started to see that she understood the game a lot more than others. We'd sit and watch games, I would videotape every single one of her games, and after the games we would go back and we'd dissect each game. She understood the things that she could have done better, or there were things that she was pointing out to me - “I should have made this run,” “I could have ran off this player's back shoulder,” “I could have slid this through ball between the center back and the and the full back,” - like she's telling me these things at 9 and 10-years-old. She understood. So, it was probably those times where I knew that she was a little bit different, and she was born to play this game.
As mentioned before, Olivia spent a season playing for Penn State, but she left the school to pursue a professional career. I believe a lot of the details of that situation are still under wraps, so I know there's probably some stuff that you can't tell us at this point, but what can you say about this decision Olivia has recently made and what it's going to mean for her in the long term?
Well, yeah, they've announced that she is going to be playing for Sporting Lisbon in Portugal. So she is foregoing her last two years at Penn State, but she still will be getting her Penn State degree. That was an agreement that we made as long as she played one season at Penn State, that they would honor her scholarship. So that was very important for me.
Back to one of the first questions you asked me - that's Olivia. She wants more. She believes that playing in Europe and playing in one of those environments where all she has to focus on is waking up, training, eating, training, and then training some more. That’s the environment that she believed she needed right now, just to develop more, and she needed more. She believes that going to the European league right now or playing for a team in Europe right now is probably the best bet for her.
It sounds like it was the right choice for Olivia and the Ontario soccer community is so excited to see what's coming up next for her. We can't wait to see what she does next, she’s so incredible.
Thank you again, Sean, for being here and letting us in on the world of your daughter, Olivia Smith. Enjoy the rest of your time with your family there at the World Cup. Best of luck from us to Canada and we will be watching from home. Thank you so much for being here.
Thank you so much for having me. And you know what? Our family thanks you too. Ontario Soccer has been our home, you know? So, anything that you guys need from us, we're always there for you.
Thank you. We really appreciate that.
Young Olivia Smith. Photo courtesy of Sean Smith.