Welcome to the World Cup of Sophia Smith

AUCKLAND, New ZealandSophia Smith had been feeling the spotlight. She’d deleted Twitter from her phone, and holed up with a brand-new Kindle, but the public’s searing gaze had penetrated her U.S. women’s national team bubble. She knew, of course, that there were commercials placing her in defenders’ nightmares; there were various campaigns tied to her name. She was the prophesied breakout star of the 2023 Women’s World Cup, the next in a long line of American soccer greats. All the hype had beamed into her orbit.

“I definitely feel it,” the 22-year-old said Wednesday.

And then, on World Cup eve, she offered three simple words that explain why she’ll thrive in it.

“I like it.”

It was the source of nerves, of anxiety, of “all the emotions,” Smith said, as the World Cup approached. “I don't usually get nervous,” she added, but she did ahead of Saturday’s USWNT opener against Vietnam. And she doesn’t think those nerves will disappear anytime soon. “It's the World Cup,” she said. Nerves tag along with stakes and significance.

But they didn’t stop Smith from surging to an early lead in the race for the tournament’s Golden Boot. She scored twice, clinically, and created the third in a 3-0 U.S. victory. And with a hint of relief, but an unshakeable confidence, she announced herself as the breakout star that everyone had foretold.

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - JULY 22: Sophia Smith #11 of the United States celebrates scoring during the first half of the FIFA Women's World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023 Group E match between USA and Vietnam at Eden Park on July 22, 2023 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/USSF/Getty Images )
USWNT breakout star Sophia Smith scored twice and set up the third goal in Friday's 3-0 win over Vietnam. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/USSF/Getty Images )

To American soccer fans, she needed no introduction. She has been the USWNT’s forward of the future for years. In her own mind, she has worn that tag ever since she was a little girl, ever since she’d play the free-for-all after-practice game that kids call “World Cup.”

She’d always be “USA” in the game, where every pair of players picks a country; and of course she’d always win, because she was uber-talented and uber-competitive. She was the youngest of three sisters, and “always had to kind of fend for myself,” she said. “But just from Day 1, I'm a winner. I have to win. Like, it makes me sick to lose anything.”

And she had to score. Even after scoring seven goals in one half for her youth club, Real Colorado, she vigorously protested when her coach tried to sit her for the second half.

She’d leave school early most days as a teen to go play for Real, which was a 90-minute drive south from her home near Fort Collins. She’d change into soccer clothes and cleats in the car. She’d sort out homework and eat dinner on the return leg of this daily journey. She’d shower, sleep, and do it all over again the following day. By age 13, she’d committed her life to soccer.

By 16, she’d been invited to a USWNT camp. By 19, she’d scored a hat trick in an NCAA semifinal and won a national championship at Stanford. She left college midway through her sophomore year to turn pro. She was a certified phenom — and yet every step of her ascent felt stunningly routine.

Which is why I asked Smith this week when she first felt a spotlight shining on her. She said she never did in college; and still didn’t as a National Women’s Soccer League rookie.

She first felt it last fall, as the newly crowned youngest MVP in NWSL history, entering a primetime championship game with the Portland Thorns.

She felt it, and scored in four minutes, and celebrated with a shrug.

“I've always loved big games,” she said recently. “I feel like I was made to play in big moments.”

She was brilliant in 2022 but only getting started. She has been even better in 2023. She scored six goals in her last four NWSL games before jetting to New Zealand for her World Cup bow. She terrorized the Washington Spirit in the last of those four games, driving at defenders and past them, toward goal, toward a second hat trick of the season.

When asked four days later to describe what she thinks about as she glides past them, she didn’t hesitate.

“Scoring,” she said. “Scoring. … How can I get to the goal in the most efficient way possible?

And does she notice all the defenders slapping at her, flailing, and often failing to stop her?

“No. No. I mean, like, I feel hands grabbing, but I'm — goal.”

Away from the field, she is “chill” and relatively private, an avid reader currently devouring the “A Court of Thorns and Roses” series. She is a prominent member of the USWNT’s unofficial book club, and an active recruiter of anybody willing to join.

But on the field, she is single-minded and ruthless.

She is also human, and that’s why the past week has been an emotional one. Simply being at the World Cup “still feels surreal,” she said Wednesday. It heightens pressure and brightens the limelight that will follow Smith wherever she goes Down Under.

But she doesn’t see any of that as a burden or a bother.

“It means people believe in me,” Smith explained. “It means that I just need to keep being myself.”

There was a time, back home in northern Colorado, back when the gap between her two front teeth was wide, that little Sophie (as her family calls her) wanted to be like someone else. She idolized Alex Morgan. She sought out then-USWNT star Abby Wambach for a now-famous photo. “Those are two players that I look up to, and have looked up to for so long,” she said.

She was then asked, naturally, about the opportunity to replicate their stardom, to be The Next Alex, or The Next Abby.

“I'm not trying to be the next anyone,” she responded. “I'm the first and only Sophia Smith.”