Sophia Smith ’22 has scored herself multiple spots in the soccer history books this year.
On Jan. 16, Smith — who is currently on a leave of absence, but was a star striker at Stanford during her freshman and sophomore seasons — was drafted into the Portland Thorns Football Club. She was not only the first pick in the first round of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) Draft, but she was also the first teenager to be drafted into the NWSL. On Nov. 27, she made history again when she became the first player born in the 2000s to play in an official game for the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT), earning her first cap competing in a friendly match against the Netherlands.
Smith’s journey, however, started long before 2020.
She grew up in Windsor, Colorado in a family full of athletes. At four, Smith started playing soccer as a forward — the position she would remain in for her whole career. Despite also playing basketball and volleyball and running track, she eventually found that her true passion lay with soccer.
“I played a lot of sports growing up and then come high school freshman [and] sophomore year, it just got super busy,” Smith said. “It just got to the point where I just had to decide. For me, it was a pretty easy decision just because I loved soccer and felt like I could be more of myself when I played soccer.”
Over the years, Smith worked hard outside of practice to develop her game. She would set up drills for herself, dribbling through cones she laid out randomly and close together. Soon, she earned the attention of college coaches, who recognized her unique speed and ability to take a defender on.
To choose a college, Smith took into account not only which schools had the best soccer programs, but also factors such as distance from home, weather, community and academics. She started going on college visits in her first year of high school and finally fell in love with Stanford, one of the last schools she visited.
“There’s really no better mix of athletics and academics than Stanford and also it’s in California, which is, I think, one of the best states,” Smith said. “I think a lot of times people will tell you like, when you know, you’ll know. And I feel like every school I visited, I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, this is it.’ But, when I went to Stanford, it was different, like, this is really, this is where I want to go, and I didn’t have to do much thinking after that.”
Not only did Smith love Stanford, Stanford loved Smith too. The head coach for Stanford’s women’s soccer team, Paul Ratcliffe, said Smith’s skills and academics made her an easy recruit.
“We were looking for an attacking player with really good speed and a good goal scoring ability,” Ratcliffe said. “Sophia was probably one of the top recruits in the country that year, if not the top recruit in the entire country with her goal scoring ability and her athleticism, so it was pretty easy to identify her. She’s also a very strong student, so she fit very well for what Stanford was looking for.”
During her freshman season, Smith broke her leg and was out for about half of the season. It was the biggest injury of her career, and during that time, she dedicated herself to recovery as well as figuring out how to cope with life without soccer.
“I kind of talked myself into just trying to have a positive attitude every day and find the good in each day and realize that it wasn’t going to be a perfect path back to playing,” Smith said. “But just to accept that and realize that every day you’re growing in one way or another. I think it was obviously hard but I learned a lot from it and I learned a lot about myself which I think is something good that comes out of injuries because you learn how to be patient with yourself and how to handle adversity.”
After recovering from her injury, Smith came back strong and helped Stanford win the 2019 women’s College Cup title. In the semifinals against UCLA, where Stanford won 4-1, Smith scored a hat trick, bringing her team to the finals. They eventually won in a penalty shootout against UNC.
“Obviously, I was super excited because we went down 1-0 early and I’m a defender so that was disappointing,” said Naomi Girma ’22, Smith’s friend, former teammate and center back for Stanford’s women’s soccer team. “But then, it was like immediately after, and Soph scored. And I think all of us were relieved and also really excited … then she scored two more goals and then it was just exciting just for her because that was a great performance and we needed that during that game and it just lifted everyone.”
Girma and Smith first met at an Under-14 national team camp. However, Smith’s long history with the national team started when she was 13, when she was called into her first national team camp for the Under-15 age group. From there, she played for the Under-17, Under-20 and Under-23 teams before fully transitioning to the senior women’s national team. This December, she finally got to play in a game with the USWNT.
“I was definitely nervous,” Smith said. “But, given the circumstances of this year, there were no fans or anything, so that took off a little bit of the nerves. To finally step on the field with the best players in the world around me was just, it was amazing.”
In the future, Smith’s goals range from playing for the USWNT in the 2021 Summer Olympics to being able to grow as a player each day. Eventually, she hopes to become one of the best players in the world like two of her idols: Leo Messi and Abby Wambach.
“The biggest thing for me is that I’ve always had a goal for myself that I want to be one of, if not the best player in the world,” Smith said. “And I think it’s a big goal to have, but why not? Why not me, you know? Why doubt myself or set any lower expectations? I think that’s kind of my main drive every day. Why I wake up and do what I need to do to get better each and every day is because that’s ultimately where I want to be.”
Ratcliffe, like many others, sees Smith’s ambitious goals as entirely attainable.
“I hope she has a long career at the full national team level,” Ratcliffe said. “I look at her as one of the top strikers in the country, so my hope is that she can establish herself on the full national team and have a long, successful career.”
To achieve these goals, Smith focuses on dedicating herself to her training, and also on having a positive mindset. She has started using meditation to boost her mental health, and said she also enjoys her skincare routine, romantic comedy movies and shopping.
“I didn’t think I would ever be a meditation person, but I downloaded some apps on my phone and I’ve found that, right before bed, or in the morning, doing that is something that can just kind of bring me comfort if I’m not feeling too good or too excited about the day,” Smith said. “I really love all things like skincare … just stuff like that. It’s just little things, but you’d be surprised how little things can go a long way.”
Another little thing that both Smith and Girma enjoy is Chipotle. Friends since they met at the U14 camp, as they played together more, they grew even closer, and both found a love for Chipotle — a fundamental part of their freshman year in college.
“I’d say one of my favorite memories is when we were freshmen and neither of us had a car,” Girma said. “And we would do anything to go try and get Chipotle because we wanted to eat off campus. No matter how cold it was, even in the winter, we’d try to find a way to get Chipotle and that’s just something we laugh about.”
Others close to Smith describe her as a thoughtful person who cares deeply about others. Her former Real Colorado club coach, Lorne Donaldson, admires Smith’s kind heart.
“Every time I travel [to Jamaica], I take a bunch of soccer stuff for the team,” Donaldson said. “She’s one of those players who’s always very, very, very giving to that … Nike gave her money and she chose to donate [cleats and bags and other things]. I like that about her: that she’s always thinking about how she grew up a little bit fortunate and she’s looking for the kids, the needy kids who she can help, all the time … She’s very, very kind. She’s got a good heart and she’s always trying to help people.”
Contact Elizabeth van Blommestein at elizabeth.vanblommestein ‘at’ gmail.com.