A few weeks before the Women’s World Cup, Sophia Smith admitted she wanted to be the first American to score a goal in the competition. Of course she did. Like all great athletes, she has long envisioned herself as a star.
Growing up in Colorado as the youngest of three girls, Smith spent years trying to keep up with her sports-loving sisters. She was her brother who was relegated to the middle seat of her car, who was with her at basketball practice, and a baby desperate for attention.
But Smith said he knew since he was a teenager that he was destined for something bigger. She told her parents that she had her talent and drive to become a “special” footballer. Maybe she’s the best ever. After all, she was not ready to settle for less.
“I’m a winner,” Smith said in an interview before the World Cup. “You have to win. Losing something makes me sick. Card games or whatever. When it comes to football, I just find a way.”
In the United States’ 3-0 victory over Vietnam on Saturday, Smith once again showed something of a gut feeling that he was going to be great.
Smith scored the team’s first goal of the tournament in the World Cup opener. And she scored the second goal. She then recorded an assist on her third run. Still she thought she could have had a better day.
“We could have scored more goals,” Smith said. “Including myself.”
It was a noteworthy debut and strengthened many speculation that the 22-year-old Smith could leave Australia and New Zealand to become the breakout star of the tournament. In a squad full of promises, including eight US players making their World Cup debuts against Vietnam, Smith was once again on top of the rest. It’s not that her teammates didn’t keep up.
At times it seemed as though every player on the US team could have scored one, two or even three goals. In her first World Cup start and her second appearance for the national team, Savannah DeMelo had two big chances early on. Rose Lovell, who is finally back on the field after a lengthy injury stint, had at least two shots after coming off the bench in the second half, including one that looked like it would make it before it bounced off the crossbar.
Even star forward Alex Morgan, who is making his fourth World Cup appearance, was no match for Smith. Morgan missed the penalty spot in stoppage time after a low shot was saved by Vietnam goalkeeper Thi Kim Tran Tran.
“You know, we can always prevent more,” Morgan said, adding that while he was happy with the win, he wasn’t happy with the penalty attempt. “But I think the first match of the World Cup will be different than the last match.”
USA coach Bracht Andonovski admitted that his side should have scored more than 20 chances as they pursue an unprecedented third straight World Cup title, and said he wished he had played more efficiently in the crucial moments in front of goal. The U.S. team has only a few days to make adjustments before facing a tougher test against the Netherlands, but Andonovski said it had been enough time for his players to study what went wrong and return to their normal scoring rhythm.
The deadline is Thursday. The Netherlands, the team the USA lost in the 2019 World Cup final, will not allow as many chances and the USA will have to work harder defensively.
But Andonovsky had little doubt that the United States was ready. He said he was encouraged by how the team performed against Vietnam, considering that the 11-man starting line-up had never played together before, and six of them (including Smith) had never played in a World Cup match.
“There was definitely nerve involved,” he said of the substandard finish. “So don’t worry.”
He added that he was encouraged by the style of football the team plays and was happy with every opportunity the team created. Smith was similarly optimistic. “When the team relaxes a little bit and connects more touches and more passes, it will make them calmer and more confident,” she said.
But she admitted to feeling nervous before the match, but said it was the first time she felt that way.
That means she wasn’t nervous when she helped Stanford win the NCAA championship in 2019, including a hat-trick in the semifinals.Or when she played her first professional game in 2020 against the Portland Thorns and then scored only 3 minutes.
But the World Cup, even against Vietnam, is a whole other level. Smith is now in a new phase of his career, with new emotions and higher stakes. But she was ready for her since childhood.
“Whoever scores, whatever the score, a win is a win,” she said days before the Vietnam game. “And if we need to score a lot of goals to win, I will.”