Windsor’s Sophia Smith ready for World Cup star turn with USWNT

It seems everybody in the soccer world wants to get inside the head of United States Women’s National Team forward Sophia Smith these days.

A remark meant for her teammates during her 2022 NWSL MVP speech offered a glimpse into the mind of one of the world’s most fearless attacking players, both on and off the field: Her supreme confidence on the ball and in front of goal, her desire to bridge the gap between two generations of U.S. players, and her insistence on doing it her way.

It echoed a message her parents, Kenny and Mollie, regularly relayed to their three daughters years ago — one that will undoubtedly be on Smith’s mind as she readies herself for the FIFA Women’s World Cup in New Zealand and Australia.

“Our parents always encouraged us to don’t try to be anybody other than who we are,” Gabbi Dobratz (née Smith), the oldest of the trio, said. “To know that we’re unique and we have our own specialties that we bring to the table, and to try not to conform and fit into a mold that somebody else has for us.”

Or, as her youngest sister described it in her MVP speech: “Let Soph be Soph.”

“The future”

Smith is currently at the front of the line of players from Colorado who have been labeled “the future” of the USWNT. Just ask Lindsey Horan, Mallory Swanson or Jaelin Howell about breaking through at a young age and the hype train that pulls into town shortly thereafter.

Smith, 22, has embraced the path Horan and Swanson set before her and will be one of 14 players to make their World Cup debut this summer. Seven of them are under the age of 25, including Alyssa Thompson, 18; Naomi Girma, 23; and Trinity Rodman, 21.

Smith’s school of thought? “If you’re good enough, you’re old enough.”

“It’s cool to see young players have the confidence to turn professional and not only become a pro, but to step into a professional environment and make an impact right away,” she said.

Smith has been a standout since being selected first overall in 2020 NWSL draft, scoring 32 goals and eight assists for the Portland Thorns across regular-season and playoff games, as well as another 12 goals and four assists over 30 appearances with the USWNT.

Per Football Reference data, Smith ranks in the 98th percentile in shot-creating actions (5.28 per 90 minutes), touches in the attacking penalty area (9.01) and non-penalty kick goals (0.68 goals per 90) when compared with fellow strikers around the globe over the past 365 days.

Being labeled as “the next big thing” is bound to come with those sorts of numbers, but talk is cheap, and winning is the only thing on her mind.

“I think with this job there’s talk all over the place, all of the time. Everyone has their opinions, and I think what helps me is sticking to what I know and to who I know I am,” Smith said.

“The ‘future’ (of U.S. Soccer) statement, I don’t think anything is necessarily wrong with that, ’cause I do plan to be the future, but I also plan on being exactly who I am right now — and I think I’m happy with that.”

“You just have to be yourself”

The work ethic that brought Smith to this point was first forged in Windsor. The baby of the family, her earliest rivals were her sisters. Now they are her closest confidants, whom she connects with regularly over FaceTime.

“Being the youngest sister, she always is trying to do more, trying to be more, trying to say more and trying to keep up with my sister and I,” Dobratz said. “I think she was born with it, and she’s always had that kind of competitive mentality.”

The roots of athletic achievement run deep in her family. Sophia’s dad played college basketball at Wyoming from 1989 to 1991, and her sisters’ youth careers were the first she admired. Her oldest sister, Savannah, graduated from Northern Colorado in 2019 as the women’s basketball program’s all-time leading scorer with 2,013 points.

While everyone in and around Northern Colorado seemed to know of the Smith family’s athletic abilities, few recognized what it was like to look different from most of their teammates and classmates in Windsor. Gabbi recalled the three daughters of a multiracial family wanting to straighten their naturally curly hair to look more like their friends in school.

Kenny and Mollie wanted them to celebrate their differences. What mattered most was being authentic and true to who they were as a family.

“I think that’s where (a phrase like ‘letting Soph be Soph’) really resonated with me,” Dobratz said. “When my parents would constantly say: ‘You just have to be yourself. You’re different and that’s OK, but you can’t try to be somebody you’re not,’ I think that played a role in that.”

“You know I can’t lose”

The first thing Margueritte Aozosa honed in on about Smith when she arrived at Stanford was her quick release — the desire and speed to chase a pass played near her. Her movement has always been deceptive as she routinely catches defenders napping — something fans who saw her two-goal performance last June at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park won’t soon forget.

It will be on full display during the World Cup. Even Nike highlighted the terrors she can cause defenders.

“She always had a desire to learn the nuances. … We locked onto that early on and were like ‘OK, this is something that makes you different and it makes you really difficult to defend,” said Aozasa, who coached Smith for two years on The Farm and is now the head coach at UCLA.

“… She had a clear sense of who she was, and the player she wanted to be. It was like ‘OK, how do we optimize and enhance that’ as opposed to trying to change her into a player she’s not?”

In their first time since being together at Stanford, Aozasa’s U.S. U-23s took on Smith’s Thorns at Portland’s Providence Park in March. The U-23s held a narrow 1-0 leading heading into the final 20 minutes of the preseason matchup. That’s when Smith and the Thorns’ heavy hitters subbed on.

Smith changed the game, as she scored once and was the key cog in the build-up for two more goals in an eventual 4-1 thrashing.

Following the game, Aozasa and Smith embraced. After exchanging pleasantries, Smith joked to her former coach saying, ‘Marg, you know I can’t lose!’

What stood out to Aozasa, however, was that Smith made sure to hang around so that players who wanted to speak to her could do so.

“She was super down-to-earth, had the biggest smile and was very accessible,” Aozasa said.

“Go have fun and enjoy it”

Since narrowly missing the 2021 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Smith has doubled-down on her efforts to establish herself among soccer’s elite.

The immediate result was the most explosive season in Portland Thorns history, one that saw her score a club-record 14 goals en route to being named the NWSL’s youngest MVP. Scoring spectacular goals, assisting teammates and celebrating big moments in memorable ways, it was Smith once again channeling her best.

“I try not to put too much pressure on myself and I think in my head it means ‘go be Soph, go do what you’ve been doing for a very long time now,’” Smith said. “You don’t have to change anything, it means to go have fun and enjoy it. When you do that, good things will happen.”

Smith is ready for the moment and eager to show off her talents on the biggest stage. If she proves to be the game-changer she knows she can be, don’t be surprised. That’s just Colorado’s own Sophia Smith being Sophia Smith, each day striving to be the world’s best.

“It’s how I’ll show up every day, how I show up ready to learn, ready to get better. (I want to be) putting myself in uncomfortable positions, ready to grow. I think it’s nothing new because I pride myself in doing all of those things, the little details every day anyways. But I think it’s just that next level, turning the knob a little bit more.”

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