Welcome to Sophia Smith’s World Cup

Welcome to Sophia Smith’s World Cup

AUCKLAND, New Zealand – Sophia Smith was feeling the spotlight. She deleted Twitter from her phone and hid with a brand-new Kindle, but the public’s smoldering gaze penetrated the bubble of the US women’s national team. She knew, of course, that there was commercials putting it in defenders’ nightmares; there were several campaigns linked to her name. She was the prophesied star of the 2023 Women’s World Cup, next in a long line of football greats. All the hype had radiated into her orbit.

“I definitely feel it,” the 22-year-old said on Wednesday.

And then, on the eve of the World Cup, she offered three simple words that explain why she’ll thrive in it.

“I like that.”

It was the source of the nerves, the anxiety, “all the emotions”, Smith said, as the World Cup approached. “I don’t usually get nervous,” she added, but she did ahead of Saturday’s USWNT opener against Vietnam. And she doesn’t think those nerves are going away anytime soon. “It’s the World Cup,” she said. Nerves accompany the stakes and meaning.

But they didn’t stop Smith from taking the lead in the race for the tournament’s Golden Boot. She scored twice, clinically, and created the third in the United States’ 3-0 win. And with a hint of relief but unshakable confidence, she announced herself as the breakout star everyone had been predicting.

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - JULY 22: Sophia Smith #11 of United States celebrates scoring during the first half of the 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup Australia & New Zealand Group E match between USA and Vietnam at Eden Park on July 22, 2023 in Auckland, New Zealand.  (Photo by Carmen Mandato/USSF/Getty Images)

USWNT star Sophia Smith scored twice and set up the third goal in Friday’s 3-0 victory over Vietnam. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/USSF/Getty Images)

For American football fans, it needs no introduction. She has been at the forefront of the USWNT’s future for years. In her own mind, she’s worn that tag since she was a little girl, ever since she played the post-workout game of free-for-all the kids call “The World Cup.”

It would always be “USA” in the game, where each pair of players chooses a country; and of course she always won, because she was super talented and super competitive. She was the youngest of three sisters and “I always had to fend for myself,” she said. “But from day one, I’m a winner. I have to win. Like, it makes me sick to miss anything.

And she had to score. Even after scoring seven goals in a half for her youth club, Real Colorado, she protested vigorously when her coach tried to drop her into the second half.

She left school early in her teens to play for Real, which was a 90-minute drive south of her home near Fort Collins. She was wearing soccer clothes and cleats in the car. She would do her homework and have dinner on the way back from her daily journey. She showered, slept and did it all over again the next day. At the age of 13, she dedicated her life to football.

At age 16, she was invited to a USWNT camp. At 19, she scored a hat trick in an NCAA semifinal and won a national championship at Stanford. She left college midway through her sophomore year to turn professional. She was a certified phenomenon—and yet every step of her ascent felt incredibly routine.

That’s why I asked Smith this week when she first she felt a spotlight shining on her. She said she never did in college; and she has yet to do so as a rookie in the National Women’s Soccer League.

She felt it for the first time last fall, as the newly crowned youngest MVP in NWSL history, heading into a primetime championship game with the Portland Thorns.

She felt it and scored in four minutes, and celebrated with a shrug.

“I’ve always loved big games,” she said recently. “I feel like I was made to play for big moments.”

She was brilliant in 2022, but just getting started. She was even better in 2023. She scored six goals in her final four NWSL games before heading to New Zealand for her World Cup debut. She terrorized the Washington Spirit in the last of those four games, charging past defenders and past them, towards the goal, towards her second hat trick of the season.

When asked four days later to describe what she thinks as she walks past them, she doesn’t hesitate.

“Marking,” she said. “Score. … How can I get to the goal as efficiently as possible?

And does she notice all the defenders hitting her, struggling and often failing to stop her?

“No. No. I mean, like, I feel hands grabbing, but I’m…objective.

Away from the field, she is “laid back” and relatively reserved, an avid reader who is currently devouring the “A Court of Thorns and Roses” series. She is a prominent member of the USWNT’s unofficial book club and an active recruiter of anyone willing to join.

But on the field, she is headstrong and relentless.

She’s human too, which is why the last week has been so exciting. Simply being at the World Cup “still feels surreal,” she said on Wednesday. This adds to the pressure and shines a spotlight that will follow Smith wherever she goes.

But she doesn’t see any of this as a burden or a nuisance.

“It means people believe in me,” explained Smith. “It means I just need to keep being myself.”

There was a time, at home in northern Colorado, when the gap between her two front teeth was wide, when little Sophie (as her family calls her) wanted to be like someone else. She idolized Alex Morgan. She reached out to then-USWNT star Abby Wambach for a now famous photo. “These are two players that I have looked up to and looked up to for a long time,” she said.

She was then asked, naturally, about the opportunity to replicate her stardom, to be The Next Alexor The Next Abby.

“I’m not trying to be the next person,” she replied. “I am the one and only Sophia Smith.”

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