ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It was March 11, 2017, a cold Chicago afternoon beckoning for fans and players alike.
The pressure was building for Justin Schmidt. He was just moments from taking the field against the Chicago Fire in his Major League Soccer debut for Real Salt Lake, the first rookie to start for the side in 11 years.
Before he knew it, he was living his dream. Playing soccer professionally and being paid for it. The game ended in a 2-0 loss, but he was there, having reached the top tier of U.S. soccer at just 23 years of age.
Almost five years later Schmidt is making another debut in February 2022. This time for the U.S. Army, departing for Basic Combat Training in an infantry role.
It’s a major lifestyle change for the four-year soccer professional, who in that time has also played for the United Soccer League’s Sacramento Republic and most recently New Mexico United.
For Schmidt, a native of Everett, Washington, it’s the opportunity to start a new career. One that involves the lure of service, challenge and adventure.
The journey to this point in Schmidt’s life has been extensive, starting from his time as a child, where he grew up with parents who understood the military lifestyle.
“There was no direct military influence in that my mother and father didn’t serve, but they were both military brats,” Schmidt said. “Several of my uncles served in the Marines and Army. Both my grandfathers served in the Air Force also.”
At an early age Schmidt’s parents sought to dissuade their son from a career in the military, he said.
“We didn’t talk about it much, it wasn’t highly looked upon by my parents. As military brats they had to move around a lot so they weren’t too keen on the idea of me serving. But it was always something I wanted to do,” Schmidt said.
Instead, Schmidt turned to sport as his passion, settling on soccer as the game he would soon excel at.
“Soccer was the sport I loved most as a kid. I started playing when I was five. It let me be as active as I wanted, it was fun and I just happened to succeed at it,” Schmidt explained. “As I got older I took it as far as I could. I figured at some point in time I could come back to the military, but getting a chance to play professional soccer was an opportunity I’d never get again.”
Schmidt recalled one of his earliest influences being Brazilian soccer legend Ronaldinho, who he watched in awe during the 2002 World Cup.
“The 2002 World Cup was a major influence on me, especially Ronaldinho. He was incredible to watch and gave me the love for the game I have today. As a central defender I wouldn’t say my playing style emulated his of course,” Schmidt laughed.
Schmidt said he became a defender due to his size, which allowed him to physically impose his opponents. Eventually Schmidt’s ability allowed him to play for the Washington Huskies college soccer team from 2012 to 2016.
“I had a lot of full ride offers, but I ended up choosing the University of Washington. They were the right fit for me and had a program I wanted to be part of. I was very well taken care of,” he said.
His performances in college led to him being selected number 35 in the 2017 MLS Super Draft by Real Salt Lake, introducing him to the demanding world of professional sports.
“There’s sacrifices with any job and it was definitely very difficult. The diet, the fitness and the overall lifestyle you had to choose to take on,” Schmidt explained. “That meant sacrificing time with friends and families. The weekends were my most important time, which was when my job was.”
“When it comes to difficulty in relation to the level of skill, it wasn’t just that, it was adapting to the lifestyle. In many ways it was a dream lifestyle. You really are playing a game for a living,” he added.
None of this detracted from Schmidt’s enjoyment of the grind however.
“Sure you get tired near the end of the season as the fatigue starts to set in and the overall competitiveness you have to keep 24/7 wears on you. But it was nothing I didn’t enjoy,” Schmidt admitted.
One of the highlights of Schmidt’s career was playing in a friendly for Real Salt Like against Manchester United in 2017.
“I got the chance to play against the likes of Marcus Rashford, Paul Pogba and (Romelo) Luakaku. It was surreal … these are guys you watch every week and admire,” he explained. “There were moments during the game when I was in awe of how much higher their level of play was. Whether it was Pogba’s cleanliness on the ball or Rashford’s pure speed, that game was an incredible experience for me.”
Schmidt’s career following his time in the MLS saw him move to Sacramento and New Mexico, the latter side he had been playing for right until his decision to enlist.
For Schmidt the time was simply right to join.
“I would never think of it as giving up soccer a career, instead following a calling. I’ve always wanted three things from a career – a life of service, a challenge and adventure,” Schmidt said. “The only thing I’ve found without compromising any of those three things was the military life. I knew I wanted it and it was just a matter of when I was going to be able to.”
Making the final decision to sign up was a huge relief for Schmidt, as he finally made the commitment he’d waited so long for.
“When I made the decision it felt like a massive weight was lifted, as if I was finally going in the right direction. No longer was I being met with resistance and it continued to flow from there,” he said.
Schmidt was the perfect Future Solider and one of the best applicants possible, said Staff Sgt. Geoffrey Box, station commander, Four Hills Recruiting Station, Albuquerque Recruiting Company.
“Justin’s one of the best people we’ve ever put in the Army in this station. He was very committed, even though he was still actively playing soccer for New Mexico United,” said Box. “He always coordinated with us and made time to assist in the process. If we needed anything from him he went above and beyond to ensure we got exactly what we needed from him. There was no slowdown in the process.”
Schmidt’s decision to become infantry qualified comes from his desire to push himself as far as possible, which he acknowledges is likely to occur during the demanding training process.
“Deciding to try out for the infantry is part of the challenge aspect I look for in a career. One of the things I’m looking forward to is finding my breaking point,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve found it yet in everything I’ve done, but I want to find the point where I have absolutely nothing left and what I’m going to rely on to get through it.”
Schmidt’s parents have been supportive of his decision to enlist, a far cry from his days as a youngster.
“They’ve been nothing but supportive since I told them I was going to do this. I’m sure many people understand it takes a while for parents to get on board with the decision,” Schmidt admitted.
With his ship date to basic training just months away, Schmidt said he isn’t nervous – just eager to begin training.
“I’m not nervous, but definitely eager to begin training, eager to see where I lie and what I can do,” he said. “There’s going to be a lot of things I’m not good at and don’t understand, but I’m excited to learn what those are and do the best I can."