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SOCCER: APR 09 Women’s - USA v Uzbekistan Photo by Jason Mowry/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

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Sophia Smith: Finding balance while striving to be the best

Sophia Smith on her contract extension with Thorns FC, the new generation of the USWNT, and how she finds balance while striving to be the best.

Sophia Smith strives to be one of the best players in the world. The forward plays for one of the most recognizable women’s clubs, Portland Thorns FC, and has recently become a regular for the reigning World Cup champion United States Women’s National Team.

Smith scored her second, third and fourth international goals on Saturday, April 9, in a friendly against Uzbekistan, notching her first professional hat-trick. The forward has been flagged as one of the many promising players leading the USWNT’s generational transition.

“I’m really excited, I think it’s definitely going to be a challenge just because a lot of us are so young and don’t have that experience that a lot of other players have,” Smith said. “So I think it’s a matter of getting that experience and the only way to do that is in-game, so I think it’s great that we’re getting these opportunities.”

“Then I just think it’s like a fresh energy,” she continued. “I feel like we all come into camp and are excited and are ready to get to work and build these new relationships and strengthen the ones that may already be there from other experiences. So I’m excited about it. I think this is an awesome group with so much potential. It’s hard to even put into words. I watch people in training and I get excited watching. I think we could do really, really, really cool things and it’s just a matter of putting all the pieces together.”

The new generation of players did “really cool things” in their most recent match in Columbus, Ohio. Smith led the way, becoming the youngest player to score a hat-trick for the USWNT since 2000. Ashley Sanchez and Jaelin Howell scored their first international goals, Catarina Macario continued her good form by adding one of her own, and Mallory Pugh provided a goal and two assists.

Smith has already become one of the most impactful players for her club, Thorns FC, in just her third season as a professional. She was selected by Portland with the first overall pick of the 2020 NWSL College Draft and the club was excited to quickly integrate her into the team.

However, Smith’s first season in the National Women’s Soccer League was atypical. In 2020, the NWSL became the first professional team sports league in the U.S. to return to action during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Smith missed out on the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup due to an injury but made headlines in the Fall Series, making her debut against the Utah Royals and promptly scoring moments later.

She played her first full season with the Thorns in 2021, winning the NWSL Challenge Cup, the Women’s International Champions Cup and the NWSL Shield. Smith led the team in scoring with seven goals and registered one assist. The skillful attacker demonstrated that she was not only the future of the team but the present as well and was thus rewarded with a three-year contract extension at the beginning of the 2022 season to ensure that her talents stayed with Thorns FC. The club was happy to re-sign Smith and she was thrilled to be staying in Portland.

“I think it’s a combination of everything,” Smith said about the appeal of Portland. “I think the investment in the game, and specifically the women’s game in Portland, I think is huge. And I feel like I’m surrounded by like-minded players and people who just want to push themselves and continue to get better each and every day. So I think it’s the team, it’s the staff, it’s the fans, it’s the facilities, it’s a combination of everything.”

In the Thorns’ announcement of Smith’s contract extension, general manager Karina LeBlanc voiced the importance of ensuring the young forward will be in Portland for the foreseeable future.

OL Reign v Portland Thorns FC - 2022 NWSL Challenge Cup Photo by Soobum Im/Getty Images

“It’s an honor and a privilege that that’s how they view me and, and they want to have me in Portland long-term,” Smith said. “Obviously, it was a lot of back and forth kind of figuring things out but I’m just so glad and happy that it worked out and that I could sign with Portland for three more years.”

“I know, sometimes three years seems like a lot,” Smith continued. “Sometimes it seems like it’ll go by really quick. But I’m just super fortunate and I just want to give back and do everything that I can to help this team and the club reach new heights.”

In the same press release, Thorns head coach Rhian Wilkinson emphasized that Smith would score many more goals for Portland and spoke about how she has taken a bigger leadership role on the pitch and in the locker room.

Smith described her leadership style as a combination of leading by example and being vocal. She typically lets her actions do the talking but will take on more responsibility and pull teammates aside if she feels something needs to be addressed. Smith mentioned that as she gets older and gains more experience she will take a more vocal leadership role.

“I’ve been in Portland for three years now so… I mean obviously I’m not a veteran, but I’ve been there [and] I kind of know how things work,” Smith said. “And I feel like I can kind of use that and help that guide me into more of a leadership role even though I am still the second youngest one on the team.”

“I feel like we all have a lot to learn from each other,” she continued. “I have a lot to learn from everyone. And I feel like I can offer a lot. So I think [I’ve taken] on a leadership role a little bit more this season, but at the same time, I think our whole team is just very, very good at helping each other and kind of leading as a group.”

The Portland Thorns and its leadership demonstrated Smith’s importance to the club with the new contract but they didn’t stop there. She was also selected as one of the two players who debuted the Thorns’ new kits for the 2022 season, positioning Smith as one of the most visible representatives of the team.

Smith’s talent and personality are some of the reasons she has become one of the faces of Thorns FC. It helps that she also enjoys modeling new kits and media day.

“I mean, it’s awesome,” said Smith. “Anytime I can do anything like that, it’s super exciting and an honor to do that, because it’s representing the club. And those are big shoes to fill but I am confident that I can do that. And I mean, I will just always try to represent the club in the best way possible while at the same time being myself and bringing to the table what I feel are my best qualities. So it’s been great.”

“I actually do enjoy [the photo shoots]. I mean, I guess it depends on when they are, like if it’s after a long training, it’s not my favorite thing to do,” Smith joked. “But I’m always up for a photo shoot.”

The long-term contract extension, leadership roles and photo shoots are all part of being one of the best, and it seems as though Smith has taken to all of these just as well as she has to the professional game. But another part of being the best is finding a healthy balance of constantly challenging oneself to get better while also having fun.

“It’s a really hard balance and something that I have always [worked on], and I’m still trying to figure out to this day – how to balance it in a healthy way,” Smith said. “I always want to push myself and to strive for more and to never be satisfied. And I think that’s great and I think that’s what all the best players in the world have to do. That’s the mindset that they have to have.”

“And then at the same time, I think if I am forgetting to have fun, I’m not going to be playing at my best,” she continued. “I’ll be putting too much stress and pressure on myself to the point where it’s showing on the field. And that’s absolutely not what I want.”

When Smith is having fun on the pitch it’s not hard to tell. She typically wears a bright smile but will then take on defenders with outrageous skill, often sending them the wrong way or to the floor as she cuts inside and slots the ball into the back of the net, much like she did against Angel City FC. And then, she celebrates – Smith raises her arms to the sky and out comes the big smile, before she hugs her teammates.

“I want to look free and like I’m having fun because that’s when I play my best,” said Smith. “So I think [I’m] just constantly reminding myself that, yeah, I have this goal, and in order to reach this goal, I have to be having fun, because this is a crazy life. It’s basically soccer day in and day out so I have to love it. Otherwise, it can be pretty draining… [I’m] just constantly reminding myself and not putting too much pressure on myself and just trusting the process.”

Smith emphasized the importance of finding ways to take her mind off soccer when she is not playing or training. The young star places a lot of emphasis on positivity, patience and mindset because it is not healthy to let soccer dictate one’s well-being.

“I think [mindset] is so important because, like I said, soccer is basically what I’m doing every single day of my life if it’s not an off day. But even on an off day, it’s ‘how can I recover so that the next day I’m ready to go,’” said Smith. “I think the importance of finding things that make you feel good outside of the game is so, so important because [you need] to have something to fall back on, especially during the hard times when things aren’t seeming to go your way.”

Smith has found a reprieve from soccer through skin care and meditation, which help take her mind off soccer. Smith’s brain is “constantly going 100 mph when it comes to playing soccer” and the priority she places on self-care helps her relax mentally.

“In terms of self-care, skin care, like all of that stuff, I’ve always always been into it. I’m a pretty girly girl so I’ve always liked all of that stuff and been into it,” Smith laughed. “As far as meditation goes, it’s definitely something new [for me]. I picked it up more when I started playing professionally. I didn’t do it a lot in college, just because I didn’t know a lot about it then and I honestly didn’t really have the time to do it.”

“But since I became a pro I have had a little bit of downtime for myself. It’s something that I’ve learned that helps me so much to take my brain away from soccer, and also anything stressful that might be happening in my life,” Smith explained. “And I think the more I can do that, the better I get at it, and being able to kind of control my mind has been a huge, huge help.”

Smith recognizes the importance of both mental and physical well-being to the success of a professional athlete. She has continued to emphasize the importance of mental health and that athletes are people too, which fans can often forget. She has used her platform to advocate for awareness concerning mental health and addressed fans via Twitter after the Thorns’ opening game in the 2022 NWSL Challenge Cup in which the team drew 1-1 against rivals OL Reign.

“It can definitely be forgotten about… For fans, when they come to a game, it’s entertainment for them,” Smith said. “They’re coming to watch us entertain them. But we are human beings just like them. And I think sometimes that can be forgotten.”

“I think a lot of the stigma around athletes is that we’re supposed to be tough, we’re supposed to be able to handle anything,” Smith continued. “And we are, but at the same time, there is a line. And I think that line can be crossed a lot of times with that relationship between fans and players. So that was kind of just like a friendly reminder because I think people forget, and mental health obviously is something that I hold close to my heart, especially recently. So [I was] just kind of bringing that back to light because I do think it’s oftentimes forgotten about.”

Uzbekistan v United States Photo by Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images

Smith has been on fire to start the 2022 season. She has two goals in four matches for the Thorns and played a crucial role in the USWNT’s SheBelieves Cup title while also notching a hat-trick in the U.S.‘s friendly against Uzbekistan. Smith has already reached incredible heights on the pitch. But she will continue to challenge herself to be the best in the game she loves because of the freedom she feels while playing and because she enjoys constantly striving to improve.

“I’ve played soccer basically my whole life and I have never not loved it,” Smith said. “I think the biggest thing, or the biggest reason, why I love it so much is the freedom that I feel like I have on the field to kind of just be myself and bring my creative side. And also, at the same time, the freedom to try new things and to always develop and get better. I just like the idea that you’re never there, you’ve never reached it. I love the grind.”

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