Performing on a sunny Saturday afternoon at Eden Park is Sophia Smith, a talented forward for the USA women’s national team who has not yet played in a World Cup. Exit, Sophia Smith, the youngest USWNT player to score multiple goals in her World Cup debut. She is no longer just a player on the world stage, but “this girl‘ as teammate Alex Morgan said.
From Colorado to Stanford and the youth national team to the #1 draft pick for the Portland Thorns and the 2022 NWSL Most Valuable Player, Smith has spent years preparing for this moment. While NWSL observers have known the depth of her talent for two years, she officially unveiled herself on the biggest stage yet – less than three weeks shy of her 23rd birthday. At the end of Saturday, she was involved in every USWNT goal in the 3-0 win over Vietnam: she scored two goals and provided an assist.
But what defines “THIS girl”? It’s much more than a flair for goal and a great left foot. Behind her smile and shrug is an athlete who enjoys one-on-one challenges, beating defenders from anywhere, spotting a defensive switch and breaking it down herself. She has the feet, the mind and the courage to withstand the pressure to lead the USWNT. Smith is pure ruthlessness with a smile.
On Saturday, Smith celebrated after waiting a long time to see if her second goal came through. She wiped her face as if to close her lips, then threw the key away. To the casual observer, it might have seemed like a warning to people to stop talking. But that would stop at “THIS girl” Sophia. It was clear to those following the 2019 NCAA College Cup that Smith had indeed mimicked Stanford goaltender Katie Meyer’s legendary cheer after she saved a penalty en route to winning the title.
“That was for Katie,” Smith said in the mixed zone. It was a planned celebration she worked out with centre-back Naomi Girma. Led by Girma, Smith and a few other USWNT teammates launched a mental health promotion campaign ahead of the Worlds kick-off — a project honoring Meyer, who died by suicide in March 2022.
“What she did in the College Cup was pretty iconic and we just want to honor her in every way,” Smith said
The celebration also served as a reminder that there is another element to the life-changing attention that a World Cup can provide. Players face an extraordinary challenge to focus on winning the games ahead while protecting their own mental and emotional well-being. Just days ago, Smith told reporters that her World Cup experience had felt surreal so far and that the fact that she was playing the tournament might finally hit her in the first game.
She admitted afterwards that she was nervous against Vietnam, although she doesn’t usually get nervous. But she was also ready to work her way through the lead questions as quickly and confidently as she had danced through the defenders just minutes earlier, and shrugged off questions about whether the USWNT had scored enough goals on Saturday or whether they were already contemplating winning the tournament’s golden boot.
“I say to everyone: I want to win a World Cup and whatever that entails, come with it,” she replied simply.
As much as Smith protects herself from outside pressure (she deleted Twitter from her phone, “best thing I’ve ever done”), she also takes full advantage of her stage off the show on the field.
Smith is aware of how much talk there is about her and it only intensifies for the team as the tournament progresses.
“I feel it, I definitely feel it,” she said on Wednesday. “It means people believe in me. I say that all the time. But I try not to think about it too much and that means I just have to be myself and do what I’ve been doing and not push myself too hard.”
The frenzy around them is not in their control. But she’s also not afraid to get involved, to play with it a bit, too. Just take Nike’s campaign for this World Cup, entitled Nice To Beat You.
Smith loves being the bad guy on the pitch. She’ll evoke that feeling about anything, whether it’s the shrug she gave to silence her doubters at last year’s NWSL Championships, or even the divisive jersey design of her NWSL team. “We love the haters,” she said. “Keep it up because it makes winning feel even better.”
The energy seems to be driving “THAT Girl”, but maybe there’s some kind of magic in their debuts as well.
In her 2020 NWSL debut during the Fall Series, she scored 17 minutes after stepping onto the field. That same year, in an interview with The Athletic, USWNT head coach Vlatko Andonovski called her “the most comfortable rookiein in the NWSL that we’ve seen.”
“It was almost like stepping onto the field like she had a hundred games under her belt,” he said. “It showed in her game, it showed in her moves, it showed in the way she composed herself in the game.”
Three years later, Andonovski might have said the same thing about her World Cup debut – even though it was Smith’s 31st appearance for the USWNT. But the difficulty level between the NWSL Fall Series and the World Cup is like the difference between a round of putt-putt and attending the US Open at Pebble Beach.
“Being on this team just has a big goal behind you, pressure and a big platform. We all know this is nothing new, including the young players who haven’t played in the World Cup yet,” Smith said. “We know that – the veterans (in the squad) make sure we know that.”
Luckily for all who were willing to watch her at this World Cup, she found the combination exciting.
“We just hope to carry on that legacy and do things that teams have never done,” Smith continued, saying her generation of players accepted the pressure. “That’s how life has become now, and I think it’s fun. I love it.”
Smith’s next leg comes against the Netherlands in Wellington/Te Whanganui-a-Tara on Wednesday. So does the limelight. However, she is willing to take on many roles — whatever this team needs of her.
There is a world championship to be won, after all there is still an eventful story to be written.
(Photo: Robin Alam/USSF/Getty Images)