When talking with coaches who have worked with Sophia Smith throughout her career, the same characteristics keep coming up in discussions about the 22-year-old: her drive, her determination, her willingness to learn.
Smith grew up in Windsor, Colorado, with two older sisters, Gabrielle and Savannah, both of whom played basketball, and dad Kenny who was a basketball player at the University of Wyoming. At one point it looked like basketball would be the sport Smith would succeed at given she also played at a high level through high school.
But it was soccer that was Smith’s true love and passion. She met future U.S. teammate Jaelin Howell in kindergarten where they were two of just four girls in a class of 22. The parents of one of the other girls, Martha and Rob Martin, began a recreational team called the Timnath Twisters, which both Smith and Howell became a part of, and her journey toward where she is today began.
After becoming two of the standout players on the team, both were picked up by a local club called Arsenal Colorado, and it was there Smith and Howell were noticed by Lorne Donaldson, now the Jamaica national team coach, but at the time was both president and a coach at Real Colorado, one of the top clubs in the country.
“When we saw her at 12 years old, she was just electrifying,” recalled Donaldson. “She had a competitive edge, she was the kind of player we liked, a bit like a Mal Pugh [who also played for Real Colorado].
“She has that cutting edge about her. She was very confident, thinks she can do it all. That’s the first thing we saw in her, the type of player we know can take it to the next level.”
Donaldson was aware of Smith’s talents given it was part of his job to keep an eye on all the most promising young players in Colorado. But given the club’s reputation for developing players, Smith was as keen on Donaldson as he was on her.
“They [Smith family] reached out too because we’d established ourselves as one of the best clubs. Her parents, who are good parents, her dad understood competition because he was a basketball player, they knew we would be good for her. It was both ways, we wanted her and she wanted to come to us.”
Based in the larger city of Denver, an hour and a half away from home, Smith’s mum Mollie quit the job she had been in for 20 years to take on a job that offered her the time to commit to the three-hour round-trip journey it would take to ensure Smith could train every day.
“One of the things about her was she never missed a session,” said her former coach. “I always wondered how she could jump in the car every day and never miss one. Sometimes, she’d come down on a half day just to do some individual stuff, because she loved it.
“If she missed a couple of shots the weekend before in a game, she’d come down and work on her finishing. Even now, if she’s in Colorado, she’d call me up. She felt like a part of me, I was like a dad to her and she was like a daughter to me. We felt like a family.”
As others will do, Donaldson said it was her “physical presence” that stood out, even at such a young age. With rapid pace and an eye for goal, Smith quickly developed into a top young player and by the time her period at Real Colorado was coming to an end and college loomed, she had almost every top college in the U.S. scrambling to ensure it was them who Smith would take the next step with.
Donaldson admits he wouldn’t get involved in advising any player on which college to pick, and opens up about the philosophy he had to help players get to a point where they could be of interest to the top colleges.
“Our philosophy here in America at the time, and it’s changing now, but at the time our first priority was college, that you can play at one of the top 10 colleges in the country.
“Then we say if need be and you start showing prominently as a U-17 national team player, then we’ll get you ready [for senior level], but we don’t push it further. Their focus is college and our focus is getting them there, that’s where they get better. We can make them a youth national team player, but we never discussed senior football with them.”
Donaldson jokes that Smith’s drive was such that he would tell her even if she was playing against a team with her own mum Mollie in goal, she would still try to score as many as possible.
“It doesn’t matter what the score is, she always wanted to score more, even if it was 15–0. That says something about her. Her ability to score, she is relentless, she doesn’t care who she is against.”
In the end, Smith chose Stanford, where she would be coached by Paul Ratcliffe, the long-time lead coach of one of the top U.S. college programs, and he recalls his earliest memories of a player who would eventually help lead the college to a national championship.
“I saw her playing on her club team,” he said. “I can’t remember exactly which tournament, but I remember her. The thing that struck me was her ability at beating people and her mentality to want to take people on and cross the ball or get a shot on goal. I think when you have that competitive mentality to be a difference maker, you have to take note of those players and Sophia had that at the highest level.
“She wanted the high academics and the highest athletics and from my eyes there’s no better choice than Stanford. I remember she was very diligent about the process, working out what was best for her and I remember being over the moon when she picked Stanford.
“I knew when she did we would win a national championship with her.”
Smith was already well on her way to becoming a top talent, but it was Ratcliffe and his staff’s job to nurture that talent and get her to where she is today.
She had already been called into a senior camp at just 16 years old in 2017 under Jill Ellis, the first player born in the 2000s to be called into the senior U.S. squad, and fans, coaches, and media alike were all being introduced to a prodigious talent.
For Ratcliffe, all the signs of a top player in the making where there from the very off.
“For me, you look at her athleticism, that stood out pretty quickly. Her balance, coordination, she had really good balance. Her dribbling ability was very, very good. She had the confidence to dribble at people and use her acceleration to separate herself from them. Training her myself, what really stood out was her striking ability, her finishing ability, she strikes the ball really well.
“She’s highly motivated and very dedicated. If you have those two things, you are going to go places. Her determination to her own development was incredible. She would stay behind and do sprints, whatever it took to get better she would do it. You can see her now she is working on her power and strength, doing more weights, she is going to another level physically too.”
Ratcliffe admits it was “challenging” coaching Smith because she was so good at what she could do, teams were quickly starting to “double up” on her, meaning she had to adapt her game, but Ratcliffe didn’t want her to lose her ability to beat a player one on one.
“We would work on her combination play with others, that’s the area I wanted to work on, but I didn’t want her to lose that one-v-one ability. So there was a balance. At international level, there’s going to be amazing players who can match her physically and that’s what I tried to help her with and I’ve seen her grow in that capacity.
Smith suffered a serious leg injury that affected her first year with Stanford in 2018, but she bounced back to fulfill the predication Ratcliffe had made and helped her team win the national championship in 2019, including scoring a memorable hat trick in the semifinal against UCLA.
Ratcliffe points to the fact Smith’s determination shone through in her recovery, and that the characteristics Donaldson had noticed were a huge part of why she was recruited to Stanford, and not just her technical ability.
“Recruitment is the most important thing we do,” he said. “You can sometimes think you have the right players, but it’s their character that’s the most important thing.
“Sophia came, she had a severe injury in her first year, then she came back and the determination she showed, the training she did with our physios was remarkable. It’s not easy to come back from those hard injuries. On paper, they [players] can look good, but in a collegiate environment, do they have the character to be the best? Are they coachable? Do they want to grow and learn? All those things have to fall into place.”
With Smith just halfway through her college career after the championship success in 2019, the National Women’s Soccer League draft rules were changed to allow players to join the draft before completing college.
Suddenly there was the prospect of a player coveted by almost every NWSL club registering for the draft at the start of the 2020 season. Mark Parsons, then coach of the Portland Thorns, would win the race for Smith’s signature and recalls the process in ensuring Smith ended up at the Thorns, the club she remains at to this day.
“You have to be aware as you can be of what’s going on,” he admitted. “What we knew was Sophia was thinking about coming into the NWSL and she felt the only environment better to support her development than Stanford was Portland Thorns. That’s what we understood, that Portland was the first choice, so we felt that and knew that.
“I’m sure other clubs would reach out and try to understand Sophia’s situation. You have to assume other clubs got told she was thinking about coming in, but her first choice was Portland. We’d done our homework, we felt she had an interest, other clubs did their homework and discovered the same.”
Even before Smith became available, Parsons had set about changing the make-up of his squad ahead of the 2020 season after failing to reach the NWSL final the previous season.
With an eye on young players, Parsons had been well aware of Smith’s talents for sometime given the Thorns regularly played the U.S. U-23s in annual preseason tournaments.
“We would arrange games like that on purpose sometimes just to have a close-up look at the talent,” he admitted. During the 2017 preseason, a game against the U-23s was tied at 1–1 in the final minutes when Parsons sent on defender Meghan Cox to help see the game out.
“I put her on at center back with about 10 minutes to go. I said, ‘Play off two and three touches, don’t let Sophia press you,’ because she could. They did, but Sophia pressed our goalkeeper and scored in the final minute to win them the game. I’d told our defenders, but we she was so good at pressing she just pressed our goalkeeper too!
“She was the youngest in the U-23s. She was in as a training player with the seniors, but otherwise she went off to Stanford. By then I’d seen her play, you’re keeping up with her games, her coaches, trying to build those connections. As soon as the rules allowed for players to come out of college early, and I think Tierna Davidson was the first, that provided an opportunity for both players and clubs.”
Parsons says he would “create a circle” around any player he wanted to recruit, learning about their character and personality ahead of bringing them to the Thorns.
With Smith’s potential entrance to the draft up in the air, Parsons had already made it clear she was the priority, telling the club, “If there’s a chance she comes out, you have to get the number one pick.”
Admitting he “blew up our team” to get the pick in a trade with Orlando Pride sometime in advance, still not sure if Smith was 100 percent going to enter the draft or not, it was a risk he felt was worth taking, and one which in the end was well justified.
A week before the draft, Smith called Parsons personally to discuss a potential move to Portland and to get an idea about the team and his plans for her.
The night before the draft, she called him again with the news he wanted. Smith would be entering the 2020 draft, and Parsons held the number one pick.
As part of the homework he did on her, Parsons watched Smith as much as he could, and recalls going to see her in a senior camp just months before the draft toward the end of 2019, when new head coach Vlatko Andonovski brought in a whole host of young players into his first camp in charge.
“I went to watch every day of training,” he recalled. “I wanted to be there every day to see who she was spending time with, how she received feedback from coaches and players, how she reacted to everything.
“Seeing how coachable and open-minded she was, what a great student she was. When she turned up, we said, ‘You’ve caused us chaos in games, so we love you as a player, but we think you can be really, really special. You have a coachable mindset, a driven mindset.'”
Ratcliffe was disappointed to lose Smith two years early, stating even the full four years is still not a huge amount of time to work with a player as special as Smith, but wasn’t going to stand in her way and isn’t surprised by how well she has done in the NWSL, where she missed the golden boot this season by just one goal to Alex Morgan.
“I want to help them develop,” he said. “I’m an advocate for education and I want them to get their Stanford degree, but there’s outliers out there and I think Sophia was one of those outliers.
“She had just helped us win the championship, she’d proven she was one of the best players and I think the timing was right for her because she’d already achieved that and been a dominant player. I hope she follows through with her education, but she might be in that 1 percent who are safe to just go and play professional soccer.
“I’m not surprised at all. She has the character, the work ethic to be one of the top players in the world and if not the best player in the United States. She had proven it at college, she scored a hat trick in the semifinal against UCLA, she was proving it and she felt the timing was right to go pro. I have to be understanding, it’s part of being a college coach.”
Smith scored 14 goals in the regular 2022 NWSL season, finishing off last week with two goals against NJ/NY Gotham as the Thorns, now coached by Rhian Wilkinson, just missed out to OL Reign for the NWSL Shield.
She also has nine goals for the national team in 2022, two of which came in a devastating opening eight minutes against Jamaica in the summer, the team coached now by Donaldson.
Joking about how it’s “bittersweet” to see Smith score against the side he now coaches, Donaldson says she always finds a way to score against his sides, even in the youth teams
“I never wished them bad playing against me,” he laughed. “It’s funny because they have beaten me a few times, all three of them, but Sophia always finds a way to score the first goal against a Jamaica team. It doesn’t matter what I tell my defender, when they see her they say, ‘Coach, you weren’t joking about her!’
“She would pull something out of a rabbit’s hat, she always finds a way. The speed she can hit a ball, she can beat you one-v-one. It’s sweet for her, but if we can produce some goals so at least I can be even with her, I’d be happy!”
Parsons recalls how despite the fact she was already a lethal finisher when she arrived in Portland, his priority was about ensuring she found different ways to score goals.
“She needed to continue improve, to position herself to make runs behind the opponent in order to hurt her opponent. The direction and timing of her movement — which she was good at — but if she improved it, nobody could stop her.
“[Christine] Sinclair was the best finisher I’d ever seen because of all the types of finishes she could do, always in the right place of the goal in the specific situation she’s in, but even Sinc had to improve things, every player does.
“We knew Sophia was going to be a big problem no matter what, but with every improvement she would create more chances, get more chances, then improve on her end product and her finishing. Nadia [Nadim], Tobin [Heath], every player we had, we would always work on improving finishing. Having Sinc there at the same time as these young players was gold dust for us. It’s not about improving, it’s about continued improvement and development.”
Smith may well prove the main thorn in the side of European champions England when the U.S. plays in front of what is likely to be their second largest crowd ever on Friday night, behind only the 1999 World Cup final.
Ready to show what she can do on one of Europe’s biggest stages, Donaldson will be one of those watching on with interest, and reflects on some of the lessons he had to teach Smith, and how he is still in contact with her to this day.
“It’s humbling when you see her on such a stage,” he said. “Some coaches, because she was so driven, didn’t enjoy coaching her, but I enjoyed it. If something wasn’t right she would tell me, and it meant I knew I could get after her, because she listened.
“Her parents were very supportive. A lot of parents get involved, they didn’t get involved, they let me get on with it. I coached her like I would coach my kid. I remember one day after she left us she said, ‘Lorne, everybody thinks you hated me, that we hated each other.’ I said, ‘You were the player, you were the example, so I had to lean on you and get after you.’ She was the example, not the player at the bottom of the roster, and she got that and relished that challenge. She never shied away from being that person and that’s why she is the person she is.
“I still speak to her, tons. After the last game where she didn’t quite win the golden boot we had a little joke. I text her and said if you’d taken penalties you’d have won the golden boot. I was just poking at her, saying she should take some penalties. She gave me a good laugh and we left it there.”