In the weeks leading up to the Women’s World Cup, Sophia Smith admitted she wanted to be the first American player to score a goal at the tournament. Of course I did. Like every great athlete, she has always envisioned herself as a superstar.
Growing up in Colorado as the youngest of three girls, Smith has spent years trying to keep up with her sister athletes. It was the sister who relegated to the middle seat of the car, who participated in basketball practice, and the kid who longed to be noticed.
Even as a young teen, Smith said, she knew she was destined for something greater. She told her parents that she has the talent and that she is pushing to be a “special” soccer player. Perhaps the best ever. She hardly seemed out of touch: she wasn’t ready, after all, to settle for anything less.
“I’m a winner,” Smith said in an interview before the World Cup. “I have to win. It makes me sick to lose anything. Card game, anything. When it comes to football, I find a way.”
On Saturday in the USA’s 3-0 win over Vietnam, Smith showed – once again – that there is just something in herself that she feels would be great.
In her first World Cup match, Smith scored the USA team’s first goal of the tournament. Then she scored her second goal. Later, I got help in the third. And even then, I thought her day could have been better.
“We could have scored a few more goals,” said Smith. “Me among them.”
It was an impressive start, reinforcing the view of many that Smith, 22, could leave Australia and New Zealand as the star of the tournament. On a team full of promise — eight players from the United States made their World Cup debuts against Vietnam — Smith once again soared high above the rest. Not that her teammates haven’t tried to keep up.
At times, it seemed as if every player on the American team could have scored one, two or three goals. Making her first appearance at the World Cup finals, and only her second appearance with the national team, Savannah Demelo had two big chances early on. Rose Lavelle – finally back on the field after a lengthy injury layoff – fired at least twice after coming on as a second-half substitute, including one shot that looked set to work until it bounced off the crossbar.
Even Alex Morgan, the star attacker of her fourth World Cup Finals, can’t match Smith. Morgan missed a penalty kick in first half injury time when her low shot was saved by Vietnam goalkeeper Thi Kim Tranh.
“You know, we can always put more out of the way,” Morgan said, adding that she was happy to win but not to attempt the penalty. “But I think the way the first game of the World Cup goes is not the way the last game goes.”
US coach Flacto Andonovsky acknowledged his team – trying to win a third straight World Cup title – should have converted more than two dozen chances they created, and said he would have liked to see more efficiency in those crucial moments in front of goal. The US team has only several days to make those adjustments before they face a tougher test against the Netherlands, but Andonovsky said this was plenty of time for his players to study what went wrong and get back to their usual scoring rhythm.
Thursday is the deadline. The Netherlands, the team the United States defeated in the 2019 World Cup Final, would certainly not allow as many chances, and would certainly make the United States work harder on defense.
Andonovsky, however, had little doubt that the United States would be ready. He said he was encouraged by the way his team played against Vietnam, considering that 11 players had never played a match together, and six of them – including Smith – had never played a World Cup match.
“I’m sure nerves have something to do with it,” he said of the substandard finish. “So I’m not worried about that.”
He added that he was encouraged by the style of football the team played, and that he was pleased with all the opportunities it offered. Smith was equally optimistic. Once the team loosens up a bit and gets more touches and strings together more passes, she said, “it will settle down and feel more confident.”
However, she admitted that she felt nervous before the match, a feeling she said was a first for her.
That means she didn’t get nervous when she helped Stanford win the NCAA championship in 2019, which included scoring a hat-trick in the semifinals. Or when she entered her first professional game with the Portland Thorns, in 2020, and then scored Only three minutes.
The World Cup, though, is another level entirely, even against Vietnam. Smith is in a new phase of her career now, with new passions and higher stakes. But since she was a baby, she’s been ready.
“Whoever scores, whatever the score, a win is a win,” she said in the days leading up to the Vietnam game. “And if it takes me to score a lot of goals for us to win, I will do it.”