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Just Getting Started: Sophia Smith’s journey to her first international goal

One year and one day after Smith scored her first professional goal, she scored her first senior international goal today. Smith has waited and worked for her chance to shine for the USWNT and tonight was just a glimpse of what is to come for the young forward.

Paraguay v United States Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

Sophia Smith scored her first professional goal in her Portland Thorns debut within minutes of stepping on the pitch at Providence Park on Sep. 20, 2020. She came on in the 69th minute against the Utah Royals in the 2020 Fall Series and the ball hit the back of the net as the clock struck 71:50.

Smith’s debut was highly anticipated. The Thorns traded former number one draft pick Emily Sonnett, the NWSL playing rights for Caitlin Foord, and the seventh and 14th picks of the 2020 NWSL College Draft for the first pick. On Jan 16, 2020, Portland Thorns FC selected Sophia Smith with the first overall pick in the draft.

The 2020 NWSL season was shortened by the COVID-19 pandemic and consisted of two competitions: the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup and the 2020 Fall Series. The former Stanford forward struggled with a knee injury and watched the Challenge Cup from the bench in Utah as she focused on her recovery. After being drafted by Portland, it would be 248 days until Smith took the field for the Thorns and subsequently scored her first goal.

Smith has played an integral role in the Portland Thorns team that has gone on to win the Fall Series, the 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup, the Women’s International Cup, and that currently sits atop the NWSL standings.

The young striker leads the league in shots (51) and shots on target (29). Smith is also the Thorns’ top goalscorer with six. She currently is tied at fifth with Lynn Williams in the league goal scoring chart.

Smith is having a tremendous year in what is essentially her rookie season, considering she only played in four matches in 2020. She has garnered high praise from the top international goalscorer of all time and her teammate, Christine Sinclair.

“Yeah, I mean, I think last year, obviously was a rough year for Soph coming in hurt, missing most of the season or the tournament, whatever you want to call it,” said Christine Sinclair after the Thorns’ 2-1 win over NJ/NY Gotham FC on Aug. 25. “And you could see glimpses of her potential and then this year for her to have had a whole preseason, day in and day out at this level… I told her at halftime that it’s so much fun playing up top with her.

She’s world class, and I mean, her potential is limitless,” Sinclair continued. “And I’ve told her that if she keeps at it, she’ll be one of the best forwards in the world in no time. So [she’s] just got to keep grinding and I think these past couple of weeks the people here in Portland have seen what she’s capable of and she’s only going to get better”

NJ/NY Gotham City FC v Portland Thorns FC Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer/ISI Photos/Getty Images

Smith didn’t just impress the people in Portland, she also impressed the United States Women’s National Team coach Vlatko Andonovski. Smith was one of three players not on the U.S.’s Olympic roster who Andonovski called up for the USWNT’s friendlies against Paraguay.

Smith made this season even more special by scoring her first goal for the USWNT one year and a day after registering her first professional goal for the Portland Thorns. Smith made a well-timed run behind the Paraguayan back line and Rose Lavelle slid the ball into the box. Smith got there first and took a touch inside and around the goalkeeper before slotting the ball into the back of the net. Smith’s celebration looked like a combination of excitement and relief as the realization hit her that she had just scored her first goal for the USWNT.

Like her first professional goal, it didn’t take Smith many minutes to score her first international goal. Smith had only played 162 minutes across eight matches for the USWNT when the ball found the back of the net.

Smith was given her first cap for the USWNT, a 15-minute substitute appearance, in November 2020 against the Netherlands. She made five more substitute appearances and registered her first international assist before the USWNT roster for the Tokyo Olympics was announced. Smith was not on the roster and she obviously wanted to be. Smith and the Thorns staff were disappointed that she wouldn’t be going to Tokyo.

“Yeah, of course, I think we’re all really feeling for Sophia,” said Thorns’ coach Mark Parsons in his media availability on June 25. “It’s been very, very clear in Portland every day, every opportunity we have to see her train or to play that she is a top, top person and a top, top player. And there’s no doubt of what her qualities are. And I would actually look at it this way and say it’s been a stressful and tough year for a lot of players with this Olympics coming up and everyone trying to perform and make the roster - coming in and out of Portland and in and out of camp, I think for most it has been tough.

So for Soph, I think that consistency and in the environment where she has so much support and is loved and supported in every possible way is going to be really healthy for her,” Parsons continued. “She’s a very mature person and a very smart person [who knows] what’s ahead, but she’s also human.

And for me, when you ask me, how do I support or help, the number one is emotions, whether they’re good or bad, they’re really healthy and to make sure that we embrace the moment and really embrace how we’re feeling is critical. And everyone takes things differently. I’ve been here before over all the years. I’ve had someone in [20]15 with Crystal Dunn not making a roster, I’ve seen a player go as an alternate and I’ve seen players go and play loads or not play loads.

It’s tough, regardless of the situation. It’s tough for those who got selected and it’s tough for them to make sure that they’re in the best place. So I’m just here, like everyone, to be able to support Soph and support every other player [to] the best [of my] ability. Knowing them individually is key and them knowing you love them and that you’re going to be here for them on the good and bad days is always important.

And yeah, for our team. I think we just added, in a period where we weren’t expecting [her to be in Portland], one of the best players, most dangerous players in the front line in this league to our group. So yeah, we’re excited to have that opportunity and I think long-term for Soph, she’s a person that will make the best of the situation. That’s who she is.”

Smith definitely made the best of the situation. She got her first consistent run of professional matches and has become even more dangerous and clinical. Since the Olympics Smith has racked up 829 minutes, one assist, and four goals, including the fastest goal in Thorns’ history and the Thorns’ first game-winner vs. North Carolina in Cary.

“I think the NWSL is the best league in the world,” said Smith in the post-match press conference after scoring against Paraguay, “and I think you get very good competition in every single game that you play and I think just building up minutes with my club team, with the Thorns, has helped me build my confidence, build my fitness, just get me in a good rhythm. And then going into this game I just wanted to continue that rhythm. I just look at it as another game, whatever team it is I’m playing for I always want to give everything I have and work my hardest for the team and the people I’m playing next to.”

Smith is in a rhythm and defenses are struggling to keep her off the score sheet but Smith’s game is so much more than just scoring goals. One of her best performances all season came in the WICC final against Olympique Lyonnais, a match in which she didn’t get on the score sheet. She followed that match by scoring a goal and winning a penalty kick, which Sinclair converted, in a 2-1 win over Gotham FC.

“I think that we’re nowhere near what we are going to see from Soph,” said Parsons in the Thorns’ post-match press conference after the Gotham match. “We’re nowhere near it. We talked about in preseason and in the beginning of the year, we would get momentum, we get four or five weeks of Soph and then she goes to camp. And she wouldn’t play and I think confidence... it’s a tough situation when you’re on the fringe in and out, in and out, and then she comes back.

Confidence will grow and then she’s off [to USWNT] camp again,” Parsons continued. “And when this unfortunate decision where she was going to stay here with us happened, yeah, first, I was pissed and I’m frustrated because I really, really believe in Soph and I felt that she’s done amazing work with us. But then also, there was a massive opportunity and now we’ve had consistent time... we knew that when consistent time happened in this environment, she was just going to grow.

We’re nowhere near. We are two months in, two and a half months into some consistent time. Six months, 12 months, two years. We’re nowhere near what Sophia Smith is going to be…

[Her] movement, positioning, timing and angle of runs in behind - unbelievable. Her receiving touches to go forward, on the dribble, shoot left foot, shoot right foot. She started to play more passes at the right time in the right areas, pressing willingness, pressing angles.

I think this is a player that has a lot of quality but you’re seeing nothing. We’re just 10 weeks in. I’m really, really, really excited to see her continue her development and you’ve seen others and how they’ve grown over time. We’re nowhere, nowhere yet with Soph.”

Smith hit the post in the USWNT’s first-ever match against Paraguay on Thursday and notched her first senior international goal against Paraguay today. Before the match Smith spoke about having confidence in herself, having fun and having the honor to play for the United States.

Paraguay v United States Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

“I think performance-wise, my main focus was just to go out and be confident and be myself,” said Smith in the USWNT’s media availability on Sep. 20. “I’m really happy with where I’ve been in regards to my play in the league. And I just wanted to continue that and try to contribute to the team in any way that I possibly could.

“Yeah, and I think just playing confident and playing free and not overthinking everything is key for me,” Smith continued. “It’s a big stage, it’s the biggest stage that I can play on and I think with that comes a lot of pressure, but to kind of use that pressure and be excited about it and control what I can control…it’s always an honor to get minutes with this team and to represent this country. So to embrace that and to always remember to have fun because that’s, you know, that’s the most important thing.”

Smith clearly had fun tonight. She had the honor of making her first start for her country, scoring her first international goal, and she provided her second assist for the U.S. Smith has found her groove in Portland and seems to be doing the same on the international stage. She looks like a player that can add something to the USWNT that may have been missing in Tokyo.

Smith could not only be the future of the USWNT but the present as well. As her club coach Mark Parsons said,We’re nowhere near what Sophia Smith is going to be,” but it sure is fun to watch the journey that is the early stages of Smith’s career both with the Portland Thorns and with the USWNT.