Bristol teen is following his soccer dream
COLUMBUS, Ohio — By the time he was 16, Bristol native Francis Nardiello Smith had played for four regional and two national soccer teams in the Olympic Development Program.
“They called him ‘The Mayor,’” said Hugh Brown, Nardiello Smith’s coach at Burlington-based Synergy Football Club. “Francis always went out of his way to make sure the other players were doing OK. He made sure they were eating well. He would actually go around and hand out fruit.”
It was the same on the practice field.
“If I was being particularly intense in my instruction or criticism of a player, Francis would go immediately to that player and offer encouragement,” Brown said.
It was one quality that marked this exceptional soccer player as an exceptional human being, observers said.
“You just want to do anything you can for a kid like that,” Brown said.
“I had 75 soccer balls in the backyard,” said Nardiello Smith’s mother, Bridget Nardiello. His family set up a trampoline so he could practice headers, and they built kickboards in the basement of their Bristol home.
“Imagine a little kid tearing the living room apart, rearranging the furniture,” Nardiello Smith said during a recent phone interview from Ohio, where’s he’s attending high school and playing club soccer. “I’d spend hours dribbling all over the house.”
He excelled in other sports, including basketball, baseball and tennis, but in the end he chose soccer.
As a first-grader Nardiello Smith played for the Addison United Soccer Club. It was during one of the team’s winter practices in Shelburne that he first encountered Synergy Football Club.
“I was mesmerized by them,” he said. He was also immediately drawn to coach Hugh Brown, who “was big and loud,” he added with a chuckle.
Nardiello Smith joined Synergy as a seven-year-old.
“Seven is the youngest age we’ll accept,” Brown said. “There have only been a few others at that age, but the ones that do get in typically do very well, because they haven’t had the chance to develop bad habits.”
“Physically, he hit the lottery for soccer,” Bridget Nardiello said. “He’s fast and flexible, like a little golden retriever.”
Brown said Nardiello Smith has a “good genetic profile,” but it’s what he’s done with those gifts that’s made the difference.
“Francis is fearless,” Brown said. “When he was 10 years old, he was playing at the 12-year-old level. He was scoring four goals a game. These weren’t just regular goals. They were diving headers, side headers.”
And he trained relentlessly.
“Synergy already places very high demands on players. Francis pushed himself further. He would finish a two-hour training session, then stay to work out another two hours with the older players.”
Brown recalled that during one spring break Francis sent him photos of himself “running with parachutes,” a training method in which athletes harness themselves to nylon parachutes, which expand and provide drag as they run.
“During my first 18 months with Synergy FC I was the worst player on the team,” Nardiello Smith recalled. By his second or third year, however, he was the best player on the team.
By the time he was 11 years old, some said he was the best player in Vermont.
CLUB OHIO CENTER forward Francis Nardiello Smith of Bristol, Vt., moves the ball up the field during a recent match. The 16-year-old high school junior has set his sights on the All-America team and hopes someday to play professionally. Photo by David Kirkley
It was then that Brown, who had “become like a second father,” Nardiello Smith said, suggested the rising star should try out for the Olympic Development Program.
As a member of ODP national teams, Nardiello Smith traveled to Argentina, Costa Rica, Ireland and twice to Italy.
In ninth grade he played against “really, really good teams in Argentina,” Brown said, including Newell’s Old Boys, the club that produced Lionel Messi, who is widely considered to be the best soccer player in the world, if not the greatest who ever lived.
A BRUTAL BUSINESS
The following year, Coach Brown sat down with Nardiello Smith and his mother in their living room to talk about the athlete’s future.
“Francis wanted to play professionally, so the question then became, ‘What is the best path?’” Brown said.
After considering teams in Atlanta and Montreal, Smith decided to join the Crew SC Academy, in Columbus, Ohio, and started there last summer. A member of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, Crew fully funds its players, including travel, accommodations and meals.
“It was emotional when Francis left for Ohio,” Brown said. “He was the heart and soul of this team. He defines what Synergy FC is all about — honor, courage and excellence.”
But Columbus Crew wasn’t what Nardiello Smith expected. After years of starting and playing full games, he suddenly found himself on the bench, with no explanation from the team.
Thanks to Coach Brown, the Bristol youngster was physically as prepared as it was possible to be, his mother said. He attended every training session and advocated for himself, but the Crew coaches would never tell him what the problem was, she added.
“The competition at these academies is ruthless,” Brown said. “It’s a brutal business and it’s not always fair.”
Midway through his junior year in high school, Nardiello Smith left the academy to join Club Ohio. Though his ambitions are undiminished his “path” has changed. He’s now gunning for the high school All-America team next fall, then Division I NCAA play in the fall of 2019.
“I feel confident about the teachers when I talk with them on the phone because they talk about Francis like he’s a human being rather than a set of assessment scores,” his mother said. “Francis is doing great in school.”
His former 5/6-grade teacher at Bristol Elementary, Rebecca Zavadil, is not surprised.
“Francis a naturally curious kid who loves history and is motivated to do well and succeed at everything,” she said.
He’s also “incredibly respectful,” Zavadil added. “Bridget worked hard to instill in him those values and that moral code.”
But with 700 miles between them, Nardiello, a 5/6-grade teacher at Bristol Elementary School, has struggled to provide as much support for her son as she’d like.
She applied to the district school board for a year’s unpaid leave, so she could be with her son during his senior year and return to her job at Bristol Elementary the year after, but her request was denied (click here to read more about her decision).
Nardiello is going to Ohio anyway.
Though both mother and son are nervous about what comes next, their excitement is palpable.
“I sometimes hide my emotions until the future is secure,” Nardiello Smith said. “But when my mom took the leap, I started dreaming again.”
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected]
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