Sophia Smith, the number one pick of this year’s NWSL College Draft, made her long awaited debut for the Portland Thorns on Sept. 20. The former Stanford attacker was unavailable for the NWSL Challenge Cup due to a persistent knee injury. She was subbed on in the 69th minute against the Utah Royals and made an immediate impact.
The Thorns’ offense struggled throughout the Challenge Cup. They scored only three times in their six matches in Utah, winning only one match. But Smith may be just what the Thorns need to get back to their scoring ways. She provides the Thorns with quality hold-up play, runs that allow her space and runs that open up space for her teammates. She’s also a volume shooter who is dangerous with the ball at her feet.
Smith displayed a good understanding of the Thorns’ defensive structure as well. She knew when and where to press effectively and her defensive positioning was solid. Smith also tracked back to help her teammates in transition, winning a tackle at the top of her own penalty area in the 76th minute.
In her appearance against the Royals, she was one of two players that had more than one shot on target. She had three shots and one goal in only 21 minutes. She also had twelve total touches (four of which were in the opposition’s penalty area), showing her ability to put herself in good position.
With her first touch of the match she showed a brilliant piece of hold-up play that helped the Thorns not only retain possession, but also create a transition opportunity.
Smith receives the ball with her back to goal on the left-hand side of the field. Utah immediately initiates the press and forces Smith into a difficult position. She shows her composure on the ball and ability to hold off defenders, even though she had the option to immediately pass the ball to Lindsey Horan or Becky Sauerbrunn. If she passed it to either of these players, they would have been under extreme pressure. Instead, she remains patient and dribbles to create a passing lane. She then finds Gabby Seiler, who shifts the point of attack.
Intelligent and Instinctual Runs
Smith’s hold-up play was impressive, but it was not the most promising part of her game that she showed on Sunday at Providence Park. The first evidence of her skill making runs was in the 72nd minute, only a few minutes after coming on.
Both Rocky Rodriguez and Smith make vertical runs. Rodriguez receives the ball on the left and makes her way to the endline. Smith’s run takes her into the box in between the two center backs. She recognizes that the defenders have their eyes on Rodriguez, so she slows her run and positions herself in acres of space by the penalty spot, making herself readily available to Rodriguez.
Smith has created the time and space to run up and hit the Rodriguez pass the first time, forcing the Utah keeper into a save. The pass bounces up on Smith and she mishits the ball, but it is the first example of her ability to create space for herself in the opposition’s area.
Smith won a corner with her shot and then capitalized for her first goal in a Thorns shirt. Megan Klingenberg plays the corner short to Tyler Lussi. Lussi loses the ball and then Klingenberg wins it back.
Meanwhile, multiple Thorns are clustered around the penalty spot with their defenders. The jumble of bodies allows the Portland players to lose their defenders in the confusion caused by trying to track players in the cluster. Horan drifts to the middle of the pack and Sinclair makes for the far post. These players attract the majority of the defense’s attention because of their reputation on set pieces. Smith cleverly checks her run and pops out into the space vacated by the defense.
Klingenberg turns and plays an inch-perfect cross to Smith, and by the time the defense realizes where the ball is, Smith has created so much space for herself that the defense cannot challenge her. She finished clinically with a great flick-header.
Only a minute later she becomes dangerous again. Lussi finds herself in practically the same position Rodriguez was moments earlier. Smith slows her run just like she did the first time. She checks her run around the penalty spot and sprints near post as Lussi drives into the box.
The defender steps to cut out the passing lane. Instead of continuing her run, Smith adjusts and slides behind the defender, putting herself in another dangerous position at the near post. Lussi is unable to find the pass, but Smith shows the maturity to change her run mid-stride to give Lussi another opportunity to find her in the right spot.
Smith shows that she is not only a penalty box predator as the match progresses. Sinclair makes a run off the back shoulder of her defender. Horan recognizes the run and plays it into space.
As soon as the ball is played, Smith takes off in between the center backs. Her run occupies them both and allows Sinclair to take her defender one-on-one. Sinclair beats her defender and plays a pass to Smith, who is still in between the center backs but is running into the six-yard box. Smith’s run would have produced her second goal of the match, but a well-timed sliding challenge keeps Smith from tapping it in.
Smith’s runs not only put her in a good position, but they create space and time for other players.
In the 84th minute, one of the center backs steps up and Smith is sitting on her back shoulder. Smith takes off into space, receives the ball and uses her footwork to attract three defenders to her. She continues dribbling into the box and eventually her shot is blocked. But her run opens up large amounts of space on the other side of the box. If Sinclair and Horan are able to get there quicker, all Smith would have to do is hit the ball to either of her unmarked teammates for a goal.
Finally, in the 90th minute she shows her ability to anticipate and create a shot for herself.
Rodriguez and Smith make similar runs down the left-hand side. One defender is trying to deal with both players and has to slide to try and stop the ball from getting to them. She misses the ball. Smith anticipates the mistake and without missing a beat, she takes a great first touch with her right foot to put her off and starts running at goal. She is forced wide by a covering defender, but is able to get a good left-footed shot off.
Overall, Smith’s 21 minutes against the Royals were impressive. She demonstrated that she has the quality to serve as a target forward. She takes pressure off of the likes of Sinclair, Rodriguez and Horan, as well. It felt as though these players were pushing too hard to create and score all the goals in the Challenge Cup when the Thorns were not scoring.
Smith allows these players to operate in the positions they are most comfortable and most effective. She also makes runs that dictate quality passes, and all three of these players have the ability to feed Smith defense-splitting balls.
Smith does not give the opposition defense one minute to rest and will only improve the more reps she gets. Her debut was only 21 minutes long and you don’t want to make too rash of judgements, but Smith looked like a veteran. If she is able to continue creating space for herself and her teammates while taking some of her chances in the final third, we will start to see a more fluid and dynamic team playing the Thorns’ brand of soccer that coach Mark Parsons has harped on this year.