Sophia Smith doesn’t look like she’s running on grass, wearing cleats. She glides. Her movement and footwork resemble that of a figure skater. Trying to take the ball off her feet while she’s dribbling is like playing a rigged carnival game.
She’s a 19-year-old attacker with enough speed and skill that she could lean only on that and be effective, but she pairs those traits with tactical aptitude equivalent to many professional defenders. And on several occasions, she has outplayed the team that took her No. 1 overall in the NWSL Draft, the Portland Thorns.
“We’ve never been able to deal with her, playing against her when she was with the [United States] U-23s or U-20s,” Thorns head coach Mark Parsons told reporters after the draft. “We haven’t won many of those games when she was on the pitch, and she was often the reason.”
Smith has been assumed to be a future No. 1 overall draft pick since she was 16, well before she kicked a ball for Stanford. She always played up an age group, starring for the Under-17 national team at 15, then the Under-20 national team at 17. She was called up to a senior national team camp and scored for the Under-23s before she started college. Even if you’d never seen her play, it was clear that she had a pedigree to match any top prospect that came before her.
And yet, she’s taking an unprecedented path, a bit different from the three current USWNT players who turned pro before completing their NCAA eligibility. Lindsey Horan and Mallory Pugh skipped college soccer altogether, while Tierna Davidson had already played full national team matches before she made the decision to leave school early. Smith sits in the middle, a star for two years at the college level with no senior national team experience as of yet. Her immediate USWNT future is uncertain, even if she’s sure to have chances to prove herself to new coach Vlatko Andonovski over the next year.
Smith’s recent experience with the national team likely helped her decide the time was right to start her professional career. In December, she attended the USWNT’s Identification Camp, which featured college players and 14 professionals.
Smith discussed her future with Andonovski and USWNT general manager Kate Markgraf at that camp, but says they didn’t push her into any decisions, contrary to pre-draft speculation. “A lot of people thought that, but ultimately, it was just me following my heart and knowing what was best for me,” Smith said. She added, “This is the best time for me to take that next step and go to the next chapter of my life.”
The Thorns, who traded up to get Smith, did not need to make aggressive moves this winter. No one would have criticized the team for keeping most of its players, making a few low-key signings, and building on its four consecutive playoff appearances from within. But Parsons thinks Smith is a rare, exceptional talent, worth reshuffling his roster for. He gave up Emily Sonnett — a USWNT defender and former No. 1 overall pick herself — plus the rights to the No. 7 pick, No. 14 pick and Australia attacker Caitlin Foord, in order to draft Smith.
In college, Smith played alongside two-time Hermann Trophy winner Catarina Macario, one of the best players in college soccer history, and Madison Haley, who was also called into the USWNT’s December ID camp. Yet even with other stars around her trying to get their own shots off, Smith scored 17 goals in 21 matches last season, and produced about six shots per 90 minutes. Perennial NWSL Golden Boot candidates like Sam Kerr and Lynn Williams produced roughly four shots per 90 in their best pro seasons. Smith won’t match her college production in her first season of pro play, but it shows why she was so coveted.
Smith has the resume of a top prospect, but the thing that sets her apart, the reason the Thorns were willing to pay just about any price to get her, is her brain. There have been 19-year-olds with Smith’s measurable soccer skills before, but her personality and intelligence are rare for someone her age.
Parsons took the unusual step of going to that aforementioned December ID camp to get a closer look at Smith and Washington State forward Morgan Weaver, who the Thorns took No. 2 overall after another trade.
“I wanted to see who they talk to on the drinks break, who they get off the bus with. I wanted to see if they’re as special off the field as on the field,” Parsons said. His observations at the camp solidified his feeling that Smith had the personality to become a top professional player right away, and that the Thorns needed to trade up to get her.
“We were in a position to bring in a player that has a set of tools that not many other players have,” Parsons said. “Everyone will see her technical quality, her ability to create and finish, and score goals in multiple ways. Her athletic ability is unmatched. But that doesn’t matter if you don’t have the mentality and maturity that she already has. She’s got the most key things that we think make a special, world-class forward. We’ve been desperate for that for a long time.”
Smith’s understanding of what’s happening on the field is advanced. This interview, after her first college game, is an incredible example. Without the help of a coach, she identifies a shift in the opposition defense’s shape, and how she should have reacted to that shift.
The USWNT program has produced a lot of athletic superstar forwards who weren’t tactically intelligent until later in their careers. Mia Hamm is probably the most notable exception; she had an innate understanding of how to exploit space with off-the-ball movement in an era when tactical instruction in the women’s game was, sadly, not yet on par with the men’s game. Others made the most of their physical talents at the beginning of their careers before becoming complete players in their late 20s.
This trend is likely to change in the near future, starting with players like Smith. The USWNT is doing more video review with youth players than ever before, and the program’s coaches list “game understanding” first when discussing what they’re looking for in players. It probably also helped Smith that both Stanford and her youth club, Real Colorado, have a history of producing excellent professional players. That said, Smith has displayed an aptitude and predilection towards the tactical side of soccer that few players at her age could ever match.
“Sophie is in a place of being more immediately ready and Morgan [Weaver] is in a place of having incredible potential,” Parsons said about the two forwards he drafted, which is an incredible statement on its face, given the basic details of the two players. Smith is 19 years old, and not particularly big or strong. Weaver, meanwhile, is 22 years old, 5’10, and regularly bulldozed college center backs while carrying her team to four upset victories in the 2019 NCAA tournament. Portland is counting on at least one of the two producing in a big way next season.
Despite the Thorns’ consistent success under Parsons, the club has struggled to find the perfect fit for its striker position. Legendary Thorns and Canada forward Christine Sinclair has transitioned into an attacking midfield role as she has slowed down, becoming one of the best playmakers in NWSL. Denmark’s Nadia Nadim did an admirable job playing slightly out of position for a couple of years, but is probably better in a supportive role than she is leading the line up top. The Thorns hoped Switzerland international Ana-Maria Crnogorčević would be their missing piece, but she disappointed, scoring just six goals in two seasons. Midge Purce performed well when given chances at striker last season, scoring eight goals, but didn’t have the technical skills Parsons wanted for the role. He’s betting Smith has the exact right combination of speed, skill and intelligence to make his team better, after shuffling through predecessors who had no more than two of those three qualities.
Smith’s decision to turn pro is also happening at a critical time for the USWNT. Andonovski is happy with his options for the 2020 Olympics, but he’ll need to find some youth for his forward line heading into the next World Cup in 2023. Carli Lloyd is 37, Megan Rapinoe is 34 and four more of the team’s forwards are 30 or older. The USWNT will need to get younger starting in 2021. Giving playing time to young players will ensure they’re well-established and experienced in international play before the next World Cup rolls around, and Andonovski and Markgraf have clearly identified Smith as a leading candidate to move into the front line after the Olympics.
All of this is to say there’s a lot of pressure on Smith’s shoulders, but she isn’t showing any signs of being hindered by it. And perhaps more importantly, the experienced, qualified adults around her are convinced she’s ready for challenges well beyond those usually presented to people her age.
There are no sure things when it comes to evaluating teenagers in pro sports. There’s no accounting for injuries, setbacks in someone’s personal life, bad coaches or a person’s secretly held desire to do something else with their life. But Smith appears to be singular, both in talent and in character. She’s as mature, humble, confident and intelligent as 19-year-olds come.
It’s common to ask whether teenagers who take this leap are ready, but no one is questioning Sophie Smith.