CENTENNIAL, Colo. – Sophia Smith’s name has been well-known in American soccer scouting circles for a while now. She erupted onto the U.S. youth national team scene as a 16-year-old in 2016, and was still that age when she got her first senior U.S. call-up the next year.
So there was a plenty of long stretch of waiting for her time to arrive.
Well, it’s here now. US manager Vlatko Andonovski anointed the 21-year-old forward as his starting right winger earlier this month, and Smith has been torching NWSL defenses all year. She has 11 goals and two assists in 14 games for the Portland Thorns, including two goal-outs in each of her last two contests.
This week, Smith is back in her native Colorado with the US national team, preparing for Concacaf’s women’s championship tournament that will serve as the 2023 World Cup and 2024 Olympics qualifying.
After a few days of training camp, the US will play Colombia in a two-game set that starts Saturday (7:30 pm, FS1) in Commerce City, Colo., A Denver suburb an hour south of Smith’s hometown of Windsor.
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When Andonovski named the 23-player tournament squad, he called Smith and starting left winger Mallory Pugh – coincidentally another Coloradan – “the two most exciting players to watch right now in the league.”
“I don’t think it will be a surprise if I say that it will be extremely difficult for a player to come in and take their starting spots right now,” Andonovski said. “Those are two players that will enjoy a lot of minutes on the field – actually, will enjoy a maximum of minutes on the field.”
Smith plays a more central position for her club than she does for her country, and she grew up as a striker, not a winger. The position change has occasionally annoyed some US fans. But it happened because it makes sense for Smith to play off the creative talents of Catarina Macario, who plays in the striker’s space but isn’t a traditional pure finisher.
So how will Smith adjust to playing off Alex Morgan, who’s much more of a classic striker?
The answer ended up being obvious: These players are good enough and smart enough to make it work.
“I think we are all ourselves and [will] be ourselves regardless of who’s playing in the front line, ”Smith said. “I think every single No. 9 is different in their own ways, and they’re all great. And I think [it’s] just building off of them and building those relationships, just figuring out how we can best work together out on the field, regardless of what three are out there. ”
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It probably won’t matter much in Concacaf’s upcoming women’s championship tournament, which will serve as World Cup and Olympic qualifying. The US is far superior to almost every team it will face. But it’s still a useful question.
There certainly won’t be any questions about whether they get along. After both players had two-goal outings in their respective NWSL games this past Sunday, Smith politely asked Morgan on Twitter to “slow downnnnnn,” with an accompanying weary-faced emoji. Morgan replied, “Omg coming from the brace queen !! Brings those goals to qualifiers ok thanks, ”with emoji of a princess and a kiss-blowing face.
“It’s always really exciting to have someone to chase after – and it’s Alex Morgan, of course,” Smith said. “It’s friendly competition. And obviously it’s great to score goals, but for my team to be doing well is even better. This league is just fun – it’s fun to have people scoring lots of goals. ”
(It’s also no coincidence that Morgan’s San Diego Wave and Smith’s Portland Thorns are the top two teams in the standings.)
Smith is one of four Coloradans on the US squad, along with Pugh, Lindsey Horan, and Jaelin Howell. It’s an impressive tally for a state with a rich youth soccer scene, especially in the Denver suburbs. Smith joked that the others say she’s “basically from Wyoming” because they’re from closer to the city, a sentiment Philadelphians can also appreciate.
All four locals will have lots of friends and family in the stands Saturday, part of an expected sellout crowd at 18,000-seat Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. Only a few hundred tickets remained as of Tuesday afternoon for the US women’s team’s first game here in three years.
“People want to see women’s soccer here in Colorado,” Smith said. “I think this is a great place for that to be seen, and for us to put on a performance so that hopefully we can maybe get an NWSL team here.”
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