Two age groups.
At the end of February and into early March, while most of her friends back in Colorado were sitting in class stressing to finish their homework, 16-year-old Sophia Smith was getting an education of a different kind.
Well, she was still stressing over her homework, but she was doing it in England and Spain, and instead of reading Shakespeare, she was visiting his home in Stratford-upon-Avon.
She was also playing soccer. Lots of soccer. Between February 15 and March 8, Smith was in Europe, first with the U.S. Under-18 Women’s National Team in England, where she scored five goals in three games, a performance that earned her a first call-up to the U.S. Under-20 Women’s National Team in La Manga, Spain, where she scored another four goals in three matches.
It is believed to be the most goals scored over six consecutive international matches for any U.S. Youth Women’s National Team player (although Ashley Sanchez did score 12 goals over 11 consecutive international matches for the U.S. U-17 WNT in 2015 and 2016).
“Sophia is first and foremost a very technical player with great athleticism,” said U.S. Women’s National Team Technical Director April Heinrichs, who coached both the U-18s in England the U-20s in Spain. “She can play as a striker and as a flank player, making her incredibly versatile. She plays with her back to the goal and she runs at defenses with speed and deception. She also has a nose for the goal and showed she can finish her chances.”
When she left for England, Smith wasn’t planning on extending her trip with a jaunt over to the coast of southeastern Spain, but scoring twice against England and a hat trick against Norway earned her a plane ticket to La Manga, long a March destination for the USA’s Youth Women’s National Teams.
“When April asked me if I’d like to join them in Spain, I didn’t even hesitate,” Smith said. “I’ve been wanting that call for a very long time. I had to call my parents and ask them, but it was an easy yes. I was so excited. Keeping up in school is very hard, but it was definitely worth it.”
In Spain, as the youngest player on the roster and playing against older players, she scored in all three games, finding the net twice against Norway in an 8-2 win, scoring the USA’s lone goal against Germany in a 2-1 loss and scoring the game-winner in a 2-0 victory against France. The goals against Norway and Germany came as a substitute before she got the starting nod against France.
Smith was a member of the USA’s 2017 Under-17 Women’s World Cup Team in Jordan but played only 80 minutes in the tournament, coming off the bench in all three games. She did not score a goal but showed her positive one-on-one qualities and ability to get into dangerous positions while creating some excellent chances in her limited minutes.
In Europe, things just came together for her in front of the goal.
“I guess I just figured out a way to keep my confidence at a good level, but it helps knowing that everyone around me believed in me too,” said Smith. “Obviously, I have some fantastic teammates, and some of the goals came from just being in the right place at the right time. But I love scoring and if I have the opportunity, I’m going to take it.”
Three weeks away from school is a long time for the Stanford-bound high school junior, but surely she will get some extra credit for an excursion the U-18s took to William Shakespeare’s hometown. In ninth grade, Smith was reading Romeo and Juliet. A few weeks ago, she was walking around streets named after the characters.
“I emailed my teachers and the principal and I told them I was not going to be home as planned, that I was going to be gone for another 11 days, and that I was willing to do anything I need to stay caught up and up to date,” Smith said. “All my teachers were super supportive and they thought it was awesome. I couldn’t be luckier.”
Smith also appreciates the unique chance to get to play in a U-17 World Cup and then go from the U-18s to the U-20s. Like many of the players on the U.S. Youth National Teams, she aspires to one day represent the senior side, but for now she’s set her goals on trying to earn a consistent spot with the U-20s.
“I know these opportunities don’t come around often for lots of girls,” Smith said. “You get to play against all these different countries and just get a feel for the world out there. Lots of time we play soccer just in our local areas, so getting the opportunity to travel and to experience the cultures outside of the soccer world is awesome too.”
It can be difficult to move from one team and one set of players to an entirely different team, then having to perform in a match right away, but Smith credits her coaches and the players for making the jump easier.
“Getting the opportunity to move up and play with older players is super exciting,” Smith said. “All the girls were super nice and outgoing and really welcoming. No one cares what age you are. There were a few of them that I played with at the U-17 World Cup, but I also made a lot of new friends. The maturity level at this age group and the overall environment is awesome. All the coaches on the sidelines were believing in me and all my teammates, we believe in each other. Not only that, but I was having fun, and that makes it even better.”
Karina Rodriguez, Laurel Ivory and Sophia Smith
It’s a long road to the next U-20 Women’s World Cup, and Smith may be two years younger than the 1998 birth year cutoff, but the 2016 U-20 Women’s World Cup Team featured four players who fell into that category (and one even younger in Ashley Sanchez), so the possibility is there.
And Smith is determined to do the work to put herself in position to show the coaches she deserves that chance. As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet: We know what we are but know not what we may be.
“I am excited every single time I get to play in an international game,” said Smith. “The feeling you get when you score, you just want it again and again. And the more you score, the more confidence you get. I just need to keep the same level of motivation and confidence, and not just in games but also into training at home. It’s super important to not just rely on a team practice or a game to improve but also to get out onto the field when no one is watching and work on the little details that help you get better.”