Iakov Shmelev, a former defender for Western Washington University’s men's soccer team and semi-pro team Bellingham United FC Hammers, now plays professionally for the Michigan Stars FC.
He officially signed in March and has already played a full game with the Stars in the East Division of the National Independent Soccer Association.
Q: Describe your soccer journey from youth to playing at Western.
A: It’s been unique. I was born in Russia, and I lived there until I was about 9 years old. And then my mom and I moved to Alaska. I lived [there] until high school and then moved down to Seattle. I went to Eastlake High School in Sammamish, played for Crossfire Premier Academy throughout high school and then committed to Western for college. … So [Bellingham] was kind of a perfect place. When I went there on a visit, I liked everything about it.
Q: After playing Division II soccer, what’s the feeling knowing that you’re now a professional soccer player?
A: It feels good. It’s always been a dream of mine when I came to Western. … I wanted to get my degree at Western and continue playing. I knew when I first got there, it wasn’t something that I just decided last minute. I’ve just kind of had that in the back of my mind, and it’s been my dream since.
Q: What did you want to gain from playing at Bellingham United to prepare you for the college season in the fall?
A: It’s great to just stay in Bellingham. I didn’t want to go back to Alaska. And then also, some of the Western guys were staying in town [during the summer]. … Bellingham United [has] other great players who are good level and push you. It’s better to, of course, stay active and play [rather than] going back home and sitting on the couch.
Q: Do you think semi-pro was more difficult than playing at Western?
A: I can’t say for sure, just because Bellingham United trained two times a week, and we would have games on the weekend. At Western, we had training every single day. Sometimes during winter, it’s twice a day — like gym in the morning and then practice in the evening. So I would say Western was a bit more demanding.
Q: Do you think if you had not done Bellingham United and only played during the college season that you would have made it as far as you did in soccer?
A: No, probably not. It’s too long of a break to not be doing stuff even if I just trained on my own … or went to the gym. It’s still not the same as playing in an actual game. Playing for Bellingham United last season, we played against other teams that had players from the University of Washington and a variety of other different players. So it’s a challenge.
Q: Focusing on Bellingham United, did you like playing outdoors more than indoors with them?
A: For indoor [during the winter], I just trained with them. I never actually played with them in a game because I was busy looking for opportunities to sign [professionally]. … Even though it was indoor, it was still the same guys. … who played in the summer, so I knew the team, and it was still fun and challenging.
Q: When did you officially sign to play for the Michigan Stars?
A: March 22 is when I officially signed, but I [have been in Michigan] since January. … I’ve been there training with the guys and stuff like that. And our season just started this past weekend, so [winter] was like an offseason.
Q: Describe the transition from Division II to semi-pro to the Michigan Stars.
A: So at Western, you’re playing against young guys. The majority are 18 to 24 [years old]. Bellingham United has a large variety of players. Some guys are in their late 20s [and] some used to play at a good level and are just doing this to stay in shape. So you have more variety. And [at the Michigan Stars], you have mostly young guys, but there are some in their mid-20s, late-20s maximum. So it's more fast-paced. At Western, you had training, [but] you also had school. [With the Michigan Stars], you have training, but you’re at the facility for five or six hours. … It’s more of a full-time job.
Q: How are the practices for the Michigan Stars? Explain the practices for a pro team compared to a college team?
A: Our training starts at 10 a.m, but we have to be at the facility at 8:30 a.m. You have the option to kind of hang out. Or, there’s a gym, so you can do your own preparation stuff. … When you’re training, you focus on small details. And then after practice, [you’re] spending time on the cooldowns. So I’d say it’s more demanding. You want to be watching what you do off the field just as much as what you do on the field as well.
Q: What’s your goal while playing for the Michigan Stars?
A: This is my first year playing pro. I just want to help out the team as much as I can. … Most important is to have team success [and] have guys gain experience this first year.
Q: How did Western and Bellingham United help you develop your skills for the pros?
A: They both push you. Bellingham United helped me stay active and continue my training in the offseason. And Western, during the fall, winter and spring, you’re playing and training all the time. So it’s prepared me very well. When I came [to Michigan], I was ready for the challenge.
Q: What are you going to miss most about Western and Bellingham United?
A: Probably the team. Bellingham is a very close community. Especially [with] soccer, everyone knows everyone. [At] Bellingham United, all the guys there I enjoyed playing with. We had a really good team when we won the summer season. Even if it was a lot of guys with different ages, we were able to play together and kind of became friends off the pitch as well. And then Western, of course, … I played there for four years. I learned a lot on the field and off the field. I’ll always be faithful to Western and Bellingham United.
Q: What’s your dream goal, either in academics or soccer?
A: Right now. … finishing up my university degree. For soccer. … I don’t have a goal of playing [at] some crazy level. I want to reach my highest potential wherever that might be and playing for as long as I can.
Q: What’s your advice to soccer players or athletes who are trying to follow in your footsteps to become a pro?
A: I’d say continue on training and playing as much as you can. Continue knocking on the doors. If you want to play at the pro level, knock at each door. Even if many will be closed, I’m sure if you get one ‘yes,’ that’s all that matters. Just enjoy every moment. I definitely enjoyed my time at Western and Bellingham United. … I think the memories are the things I’ll always remember.
Taras McCurdie (he/him) is the sports editor for The Front this quarter. He is an aspiring sports journalist entering his final quarter at Western Washington University (WWU). Outside of school, you can find him freelancing for the Lynden Tribune, playing on the WWU club tennis team or running on the treadmill at the Rec Center. When chilling at night, he listens to throwback slow jams and ’90s hip-hop. You can reach him at email@example.com.