The next USWNT legend has arrived
You probably don’t know Sophia Smith’s name yet — but you should.
And when she wins the Golden Ball at the 2023 Women’s World Cup, you can tell all of your friends that you saw it coming.
At just 22 years old, Smith has already won an NWSL title with the Portland Thorns, she was named league MVP the same year and scored 14 goals while providing 3 assists in 18 matches. Smith didn’t shy away from the big moments, either. Just four minutes into the championship game against Kansas City Current, Smith made a darting run off the opposing centerback’s shoulder, collected the ball and rounded the keeper to score the opening and winning goal. Her celebration was as confident as the goal itself.
The upcoming World Cup in New Zealand and Australia will be Smith’s first major tournament competing for the USWNT. Despite her lack of major tournament experience, Smith has already become a regular on the national team. In 2022, Smith scored 11 goals for the USWNT and started a team-high 17 matches.
The combination of her achievements for club and country has earned Smith a place among the USWNT all-time greats already. She won U.S. Soccer’s Female Player of the Year award, the youngest to do so since Mia Hamm in 1994. Her 14 club goals and 11 USWNT goals in 2022 make her just the fourth American women’s player ever to score 10 or more for both the national team and her NWSL team. The three others? Sydney Leroux, Christen Press and the legendary Abby Wambach.
Smith is undoubtedly young, but she is ready to carry the burden of being the USWNT’s best player. Her 2022 season has set the stage for a 2023 World Cup-inspired breakout, where U.S. soccer fans who only tune in for World Cups will start mentioning her in the same breath as Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe.
But what does Smith play like?
She has a pure attacking instinct that separates her from her peers. She’s a one-woman offense who can play anywhere across the forward line — at striker or on either wing. While some players suffer for their flexibility, Smith uses it to her advantage. Her ability to vary her positioning means she can trouble opposing defenders in different ways throughout a match.
Football Reference, one of the leading soccer stats sites, places her in the 97th percentile among comparable women’s players for shot-creating actions — an offensive stat that counts passes, dribbles and fouls drawn leading to a shot. Smith has 5.12 shot-creating actions per 90 minutes played, a truly ridiculous figure. For reference, the Thorns averaged about 18 shots per match, meaning Smith created about one-fourth of her team’s total shots by herself. She’s one of the best dribblers in the world already with 2.93 completed per 90.
Among players who started 10 or more NWSL matches, Smith led the league in expected goals plus assists per 90 minutes, a stat that estimates the number of goals a player should’ve assisted and scored based on the position of their passes and shots.
It’s already clear that Smith is a whirlwind attacker who can lead the line all by herself. At 22, it’s possible she will continue to improve. While she doesn’t necessarily resemble either player stylistically, Smith could eventually combine the goal-scoring prowess of Morgan with Rapinoe’s creativity.
2023 will almost certainly be Rapinoe’s final World Cup and potentially Morgan’s last as well. But the U.S. has no reason to fear the old guard’s retirement. In the build-up to the 2023 World Cup, USWNT Head Coach Vlatko Andonovski would benefit from embracing the rise of the new guard, which Smith spearheads.
Smith will likely start at right wing for the USWNT in New Zealand and Australia, with fellow young-gun attacker Mallory Swanson at left wing and Morgan through the middle. That attack will be as potent as any at the World Cup and can certainly go toe-to-toe with 2022 UEFA Women’s Euros winners England, who scored a ridiculous 22 goals in six matches at the tournament.
The Lionesses will be a tough competition for the USWNT this summer, but with Smith leading the line, anything is possible for the U.S. If the Stars and Stripes take home the trophy, Smith will be a Golden Ball candidate without a doubt.
Jack Hallinan is a sophomore writing about the top wonderkids in mens and womens soccer in his column “Rising Ballers.”