Sophia Smith has yet to find a stage that’s too big for her.
In college, she led Stanford to a national title. In the NWSL, she led the Portland Thorns to a championship and became the youngest player to win league MVP honors. So it came as no surprise that she made her first World Cup game her own as well, scoring a pair of first-half goals and assisting on Lindsey Horan’s second-half score Saturday to lead the U.S. to a 3-0 victory over Vietnam.
For the U.S., the win was more clumsy than clinical, with the Americans outshooting Vietnam 28-0, putting seven of those on target, yet wasting chance after chance. But they did enough to run their unbeaten streak to 18 games in World Cup play, the first step on what the team hopes will be a journey that ends with an unprecedented third consecutive title.
With Megan Rapinoe, the World Cup MVP four years ago, and Rose Lavelle, voted the third-best player in France, nursing injuries, the U.S. went with an unconventional starting lineup, moving midfielder Julie Ertz to center back, where she last played a meaningful game in the 2019 World Cup opener, and giving midfielder Savannah DeMelo her first international start. Both Rapinoe and Lavelle came on in the 63rd minute. For Lavelle it was her first action since early April and she was nearly rewarded with a goal, but her shot from the right wing in the 86th minute hit the crossbar.
Whether the U.S. will be able to continue riding its depth to success is another question. The Americans face the Netherlands, the 2019 World Cup runner-up, in group play Wednesday. And the 16-team knockout stage figures to be the most competitive in history.
“This is what is supposed to happen,” said Horan, the U.S. captain and the only American who plays for a club outside the NWSL, of the improvement in the women’s game around the world. “We want a competitive World Cup. We want all of these teams to give us their best matches. Before we were just like, oh, this is going to be 6-0, 7-0 or whatever. That’s not how it is anymore. Teams are up to this level. It’s going to be the most competitive World Cup — it already is — and that’s exciting. That’s what everyone wants, wants to watch.”
Consider the U.S., which is ranked No. 1 in the world. It beat Thailand 13-0 in its tournament opener four years ago. But Vietnam, playing the first World Cup game in its history, proved much tougher for everyone but Smith.
Expected to be the breakout star of this World Cup, Smith opened the scoring in the 14th minute. The sequence started with Horan sending a ball forward for Alex Morgan, whose back-heel pass found Smith in full sprint up the left wing. She outran a pair of defenders, then grounded a left-footed shot through the legs of Vietnamese keeper Tran Thi Kim Thanh.
Smith doubled the lead in the dying moment of first-half stoppage time, left-footing a shot through traffic and again through the keeper’s legs. Morgan helped set up that score, too, though minutes earlier she had been frustrated by Thanh, who guessed correctly and dove in front of the American’s penalty shot.
2023 Women’s World Cup coverage
Smith’s second score was originally negated by an offside call but that was overruled after a video review.
Horan then made in 3-0 it the 77th minute. After Smith drove to the end line, drawing a host of Vietnamese defenders with her, she sent a right-footed pass into the center of the box for a lonely Horan, who had an empty net to shoot at.
Things won’t get any easier against the Netherlands. The Americans beat the Dutch in the final of the last World Cup as well as in the quarterfinals of the Tokyo Olympics, on penalty kicks, two years ago.
Coach Vlatko Andonovski’s mission heading into this tournament was a complicated one. Not only has he been saddled with the pressure of keeping the U.S. on top, but he’s also been asked to remake an aging team younger. So the team he brought to New Zealand includes a U.S. record 14 players making their first trip to the tournament, including Smith and teenager Alyssa Thompson, the second-youngest American to play in a World Cup, who made her debut late in the second half.
So far, he seems to have chosen correctly.