Where Sophia Smith goes, confidence follows. Take for example the viral Michael Jordan-esque, shoulder-shrug celebration of her goal four minutes into last year’s National Women’s Soccer League Championship. The goal clinched her team, Portland Thorns, a third NWSL title and secured Smith the MVP game trophy to cap off her MVP season.
“I just did it,” Smith said after the match. “There’s been a lot of people who don’t think that I deserve to win MVP. So that was a little bit of, you know, that’s that.”
Smith enters the 2023 Women’s World Cup as arguably the United States’ best player right now. She continues to live up to the lofty expectations of being a generational forward capable of changing the game on her own. Now, she shoulders the burden of translating that league form to her first major international tournament.
Smith is undeterred. “I think my role going into this tournament, it’s going to be big, and I love that,” Smith said upon being named to the USA roster in June. “I love the spotlight, I love pressure, I love it all.”
Statistically, Smith’s prowess is obvious. After scoring 15 goals last season, Smith has netted 10 just past the halfway mark of this campaign. Her five assists are the second-most in the NWSL, and her 15 total goal contributions are five more than the next closest player. According to American Soccer Analysis, Smith’s goals-added (g+) metric nearly doubles that of the next most valuable player in the league.
There is more to Smith than goals and stats, however. Amazing things happen when she gets on the ball – the type of how-did-she-do-that moments that can change games and, potentially, World Cup destinies. Smith’s USA teammates describe her game as “unstoppable”, “unpredictable” and “deadly”. They have seen that first-hand as opponents in the NWSL.
Smith’s parting shot for the Thorns before leaving for the World Cup was a hat-trick (her second of the season) secured in 48 minutes. Her first goal was an individual masterclass, something more likely to be seen in a video game than real life: Smith turned around in midfield, dribbled through three defenders and eventually fired off a shot with five opposing players in her vicinity.
Those breathless moments come from a forward confident and at peace with herself, an athlete optimizing her physical output without overthinking anything. At a media day in Los Angeles last month, Smith quickly quipped when asked what is going through her head in those moments when she is dragging defenders: “Scoring,” she said. She feels the hands of defenders grabbing at her, but she does not otherwise take notice of those around her.
Smith, who turns 23 next month, is a self-described “chill” person who prefers to keep a low profile and read a good book – currently A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J Maas – but she possesses an undeniable ruthlessness that is recognizable in her play and how she discusses winning. As the youngest of three sisters growing up in the suburbs north of Denver, Colorado, winning was everything.
“Just, from day one, I’m a winner,” Smith said. “I have to win. Like, it makes me sick to lose anything, card game, anything. So, when it comes to soccer, I just find a way.”
Smith will be called upon often at this World Cup. She is an exceptional centre-forward for Portland, but for the US she is more often a dynamic winger, typically starting alongside the veteran Alex Morgan.
“First and foremost, this is the best team in the world and in order to play on this team you have to be one of the best in the world,” the USA head coach, Vlatko Andonovski, said in September after another strong match from Smith. “She is a special player and she’s certainly developing aspects of her game that she maybe wasn’t special in: ability to pop in pockets or to recognize those pockets and then expose the defence. For us as coaches, we’re happy to see that because it gives us another layer or an opportunity to create strategy in a way that we believe we can expose teams.”
A minor injury this winter and a brief goalless drought in the league this spring were merely temporary setbacks. Smith has only gotten better since. She has 12 goals in 30 caps and the best, many believe, is yet to come.
Morgan is more than 11 years Smith’s senior and a player who Smith says she tried to emulate during her youth. Smith grew up watching Morgan forge a partnership with Abby Wambach in the twilight of Wambach’s then record-setting career of goalscoring.
The USA’s 2015 World Cup triumph was a defining memory of the team for Smith. She was not alive for the famous 1999 win on home soil but she has watched recordings of those games despite her personal dislike of any grainy videos, old movies included.
At a party hosted by the USWNT Players Association last year, Smith took a photo with Morgan and Wambach, an image that she recently said was a representation of passing the torch. Wambach took Morgan under her wing, and now Morgan was doing the same for Smith.
It was also a full-circle moment for Smith. A few years ago, Smith tweeted a now famous photo of her as a kid with Wambach, who at the time was in the prime of her career. Smith was one of the many faces in the crowd to meet Wambach. Few could have predicted then that a baby-faced Smith would go on to become the next go-to USA forward, the player relied upon to score. Smith is not among that group.
Humble, quiet, thoughtful: all these things accurately describe Smith. She likes to live a “normal life”, she said at the team’s media day. “I’m not a super-open book,” she said. “I keep my circle small.” Smith is clear about a few things, however. She is confident. She will relentlessly pursue winning. And, most of all, she is undeniably herself – not the next Morgan, Wambach, or anyone else.
“I mean, I’m not trying to be the next anyone,” she said. “I’m the first and only Sophia Smith, and that’s my goal. I obviously want to continue this team’s legacy of winning World Cups and being the best.”