When the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC take on the University of Pittsburgh men’s soccer team in what has become an annual ritual this time of year on Wednesday morning, there’s no doubt that Bob Lilley will be very focused on the match and all of the intricacies of what’s happening with his players on the field.
At some point though, Lilley may have a thought or two going through his head about an important person in his life: Todd Smith.
“He was one of those guys who was well-rounded. He could do anything,” Lilley shared in his office at Highmark Stadium earlier this Winter when asked about some of his early soccer influences, he made a point to single out Smith.
Todd Smith was someone who Lilley got to know as they both were top-level soccer players growing up in Central PA in the early and mid-1980s. Smith, who went to Cumberland Valley High School, was a year older than Lilley, who went to Carlisle High School. They were fierce competitors when they played each other in high school but they were also teammates for various state-level teams.
As Lilley would go on to play at George Mason, Smith took his talents and aspirations to Pittsburgh, where he became a four-year standout for Pitt’s men’s program in the mid-to-late 1980s under Joe Luxbacher. Lilley remained in touch with Smith as they each would play professionally, even as teammates along the way, but each also got into coaching and management roles in the 1990s.
“Todd was a players’ player,” said Jim Pollihan, on MASL.com recently. Pollihan coached both Lilley and Smith when they were teammates on the Harrisburg Heat indoor team. “Everybody loved Todd. He wasn’t the quickest guy on the field, but he knew how to get the job done defensively. He had a great shot, a hard shot. He was a great guy in the locker room. Knew when to joke, when to be serious. Had a good head on his shoulders.”
While Lilley was admittedly focused on soccer, he countered that Smith was a different breed.
“He worked various jobs, would build decks in the summer. He had his own construction company,” Lilley explained. “That’s how he ended up in a GM type position, because was a bright guy. Very, very, very adaptable. I am very focused on one thing. I struggle with multi-tasking. Some people are great at that. You really want to have them around you.”
Then, a great opportunity came knocking for both to build something special together, when the Hershey Wildcats franchise was founded in 1997 as part of the the USL A-League.
Smith was hired as the club’s general manager — and he wanted Lilley to become the club’s first-ever head coach.
“I had done a fair bit of coaching in college (Dickinson College women’s program in Carlisle), high school (Lee High School in Springfield, VA). I knew that coaching would be something that I probably would get into after playing,” Lilley shared. “Fortunately, Todd, knew me, trusted me, and knew I knew the game pretty well.”
Having played professionally, mostly indoors in Hershey, Harrisburg, and for a brief stint in Pittsburgh, Lilley felt he could still keep playing, but this was too good of an opportunity to pass up, as he could make his mark coaching at a higher level.
It became the golden ticket to keeping Lilley in the game he loved beyond his playing career.
“I would have played another few years, but I was 30 at the time. When Todd offered me that (head coaching) job, they were an expansion franchise. They put in a new grass field at Hershey Stadium. A million dollar field. It was my hometown.” Lilley said. “I’m like, if I don’t take this, I might not get this opportunity again.”
Together Lilley and Smith made the most of it, assembling a winning franchise in Hershey.
“I think we finished second overall that first year, in the entire league, behind Montreal,” Lilley recalled. “Todd did a great job. We were able to work together. We played together, knew each other, even lived together for a short while. We were able to get off to a good start — set a foundation, and build a strong team.”
That first year, both Lilley and Smith were each recognized, as the A-League’s Coach and Executive’s of the Year respectively. In five years, Hershey never finished lower than third place in the A-League, making playoff appearances each year, and reaching the A-League finals in 2001, where Lilley ironically lost to his future club, Rochester, 2-0.
With Lilley’s tight relationship with Smith, along with his experience with the Pittsburgh Stingers, he also became more and more acquainted with what he calls ‘The Pittsburgh Crew’ and relationships that have only been strengthened since his hiring as Riverhounds SC coach.
“Actually, for the Wildcats coaching job, he also talked to (Riverhounds first GM and Hall of Famer/Current DC United GM) Dave Kasper as well, and he was friends with (former Pittsburgh Spirt player) Dave Mackenzie. They would come and watch our games. I got to know Dave because of Todd. John Kowalski, the whole Pittsburgh crew actually,” Lilley reminisced. “Todd’s nickname was ‘schmutzy.’ They all knew Todd from when he played at Pitt. He was close to a lot of those guys.”
At just 35 years of age, after his success in Hershey, Smith moved straight up to Major League Soccer, taking on the GM post with the New England Revolution in 2000, as he was hired by Revolution managing director Sunil Gulati.
“Todd is one of the top professionals working in soccer today.″ Gulati said when hiring Smith. “He brings a wealth of experience, energy and enthusiasm to the organization.″
Lilley nearly followed Smith to New England.
“He tried to bring me there as an assistant. Fernando Clavijo was the head coach at that point. He wanted to bring me in there, and Fernando said no. He ended up bringing in Steve Nicol, a former Liverpool great. Fernando was a well-known figure in U.S. Soccer. Had a lot of ties, spoke Spanish. But, they weren’t winning, and would eventually fire Clavijo. They hired Nichol, and had a pretty good run. (Nichol would go on to be the Revolution’s head coach from 2002-11).”
After the 2001 season, the Hershey Wildcats folded operations, and Lilley would move on to become the head coach of the Montreal Impact.
Only a few years after landing the GM position with the Revolution, Smith helped usher in a successful soccer era in New England, as the Revs reach the U.S. Open Cup final in 2001 and final of MLS Cup 2002. Smith also guided the Revs during the transition from their old home at Foxboro Stadium to Gillette Stadium during 2002.
At that time in 2002, while in Montreal, Lilley got the crushing news that his friend was diagnosed with leukemia.
“I made trips, on off days, would drive from Montreal to Boston. Would go visit him as much as I could,” Lilley said. “They did everything they could, but he passed away.”
After a year and a half battle, Smith passed away from complications from leukemia at Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston on December 31, 2003. Smith was just 38 years of age.
“That’s still difficult for me.,” Lilley shared. “He was a bright guy. Very, very, very adaptable. We worked very well together. But, most importantly, he was a great friend.”
Smith would no doubt love what’s going on with soccer in Pittsburgh in 2020.
Not only is his pal taking the Riverhounds organization to new heights, but his alma mater’s soccer program has achieved unparalleled success under the direction of Jay Vidovich.