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 she did. Like any great athlete, she has long seen herself as a star.
Growing up in Colorado as the youngest of three girls, Smith spent years trying to keep up with her sporty sisters. She was the sibling relegated to the middle seat of the car, the one who tagged along to basketball practice, and the baby longed to be noticed.
But even as a young teenager, Smith said, she knew she was destined for something bigger. She told her parents she had the talent and drive to be a “special” soccer player. Maybe the best ever. It hardly seemed like a long shot: after all, she wasn’t prepared to settle for anything less.
“I’m a winner,” Smith said in an interview before the World Cup. “I have to win. Losing anything makes me sick. Cards, anything. When it comes to football, I just find a way.
On Saturday in the USA’s 3-0 win over Vietnam, Smith showed – once again – that there was something about her gut that she was going to be great.
In his first World Cup match, Smith scored the US team’s first goal of the tournament. Then she scored her second. Later, she had the assist on its third. And even then, she thought her day could have been better.
“We could have scored more goals,” Smith said. “Myself included.”
It was a remarkable debut which reinforced the view of many that Smith, 22, could leave Australia and New Zealand as the tournament’s breakout star. In a team full of promise — eight American players made their first World Cup appearances against Vietnam — Smith once again soared above the rest. Not because her teammates didn’t try to keep up.
At times it seemed as if every player on the American team could have scored a goal or two or three. Savannah DeMelo, making her first World Cup start and only her second appearance for the national team, had two big early chances. Rose Lavelle – finally back on the pitch after a long injury lay-off – had at least two more after coming on as a second-half substitute, including a shot that looked set to be successful until it ricocheted over the crossbar.
Not even Alex Morgan, the star forward in her fourth World Cup, could match Smith. Morgan missed a penalty in first-half injury time when her low shot was stopped by Vietnam goalkeeper Thi Kim Tranh Tran.
“You know, we can always put more away,” said Morgan, who added she was happy with the win, but not with her penalty try. “But I think the way the first World Cup game goes is not the way the last one is going to go.”
United States coach Vlakto Andonovski acknowledged that his team – which is trying to win an unprecedented third straight World Cup title – should have converted more of the two dozen-plus chances they created and said he would have liked to see more efficiency in the critical moments in front of goal. The U.S. team only has several days to make those adjustments before it faces a much tougher test against the Netherlands, but Andonovski said that 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, a team the USA defeated in the 2019 World Cup finals, will certainly not allow as many chances and that will surely make the USA work harder on defense.
However, Andonovski had no doubt that the United States would be ready. He said he was encouraged by how his team played against Vietnam, considering the 11 starters had never played a match together and six of them – including Smith – had never played a World Cup match at all.
“I’m sure nerves had something to do with it,” he said of the substandard finishing. “So I’m not worried about that.”
He added that he was encouraged by the style of football the team played and pleased with all the opportunities it created. Smith was equally optimistic. Once the team loosens up a little and gets more touches and puts more passes together, she said, it will “settle and feel more confident.”
However, she admitted that she felt nervous before the match, a sensation which she said was a first for her.
That means she felt no nerves as she helped Stanford win an 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 scored after only three minutes.
However, the World Cup is a whole other level, even against Vietnam. Smith is at a new stage in his career now, with new emotions and higher stakes. But ever since she was a child, she has been ready.
“Whoever scores, no matter what the score is, a win is a win,” she said in the days before the Vietnam game. “And if it takes me scoring a lot of goals for us to win, I’ll do it.”