Sophia Smith arrived as a late addition to her first-ever U.S. Under-20 Women’s National Team training camp. She had turned heads when she scored five goals in three international games with the U-18 WNT in England and flew directly to Spain to join the U-20s for the annual La Manga tournament in March of 2017.
She’s been a mainstay for the team ever since. The youngest player on the roster in Spain, Smith continued to impress with four goals against older competition.
Since then, Smith has shown an exceptional ability to find the back of the net for the U-20s. She enters the cycle’s culminating event, the FIFA Under-20 Women’s World Cup, as the team’s far-and-away leading scorer and riding a record-breaking scoring streak of nine straight international matches. But in the 17 months since that first call-up, her presence has grown tremendously beyond just scoring goals.
“I went in with no fear at that first camp. I didn’t really have anything to lose, so I thought I might as well work hard and show them what I could do,” Smith said. “It kind of took off from there. I’ve just grown every single camp. All the opportunities that this team has provided have made me become a completely different player. I’m more mature, both on and off the field. I owe a lot to this team and this journey.”
Smith entered her first U-20 camp fresh off of the 2016 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup in Jordan, where she played sparingly , logging 80 minutes off the bench.
She’s come a long way since then, and while she’s still one of the team’s youngest players, and one of just two 17-year-olds on the roster, Smith has logged the third-most minutes this year for the U-20s.
“Age is only a number,” Smith said. “I’ve always played up. I’m one of the youngest on this team, but I don’t feel like it. I think one of my strengths is leading by example and working hard for my teammates. That’s how I’ve gotten my foot in the leadership door.”
As she has grown into a starring role for the USA, so has her confidence. She acknowledges earlier in the cycle that she would have been too timid to let her voice be heard in the locker room. Now, head coach Jitka Klimkova has seen Smith pick her spots to speak and has been impressed by the young forward’s development.
“She hits the target when she scores goals and that’s also how she talks. She doesn’t talk much, but when she does, it’s really on-point,” Klimkova said. “It’s not about being the one to talk all the time, it’s about the quality of the message. When she says something, it’s really spot-on.”
At the U-20s’ final international tournament before the World Cup, June’s Tournoi Maurice Revello Sud Ladies Cup in France, Smith went into the locker room unimpressed with her team’s first half effort in the final game. After the U-20s put up 10 goals in a shutout win over perennial power Germany and a strong victory over regional rival Haiti, they stood in position to clinch the tournament with a win against France. But the team had come out flat in a scoreless first half. She let everyone know that the effort wasn’t good enough.
“I knew someone needed to speak up because no one was doing it,” Smith said. “We were all tired. It had been a long camp. I think everyone was just not really feeling it. I was like guys, ‘we could win this whole tournament in these last 45 minutes. Let’s go win this game.’ That was an important part of my career, knowing that I can influence players, even if I’m the youngest. I pick my chances to speak up. When I do, I think it’s in the right moments.”
After the break, Smith netted the game’s opening goal in the 59th minute. When France equalized in the 65th, Smith set-up Erin Gilroy for the game-winner just four minutes later. The USA went on to win 3-1 to clinch the tournament title.
Smith scored four goals at the Sud Ladies Cup, the midway point of the nine-game scoring streak that dates back to early March. The run is a Youth National Team program record, and ties Michelle Akers’ streak at the senior level in 1991.
The onslaught of goals correlates to the team’s extended time together in 2018. While the college season limited the U-20 WNT’s time together in 2017, the team has gathered for training camps and international matches every month this year. The increased programming has paid dividends for the team’s chemistry and connectivity and has reflected in the results this year. The team has lost just once in 2018 heading into the World Cup
Klimkova has seen the team’s level reach new heights since January’s World Cup qualifying in Trindad and Tobago, a rising tide that has lifted everyone’s performance, especially Smith.
“In qualifiers, she really wanted to do it by herself. Now, she’s realized it’s not about her, it’s about the team,” Klimkova said. “She’s combining with the team and the team is combining with her. She needs the people around her. The people around her trust her the same way she trusts the people around her. That’s the synergy and that trust has helped her success scoring goals.”
Current senior WNT midfielder Lindsey Horan visited the U-20s’ final training camp before the World Cup, an 18-day gathering in early July in Portland, Ore. Horan represented the USA at the 2014 U-20 WWC, and like Smith, comes from Colorado. In Portland, she offered advice that has stuck with the young forward.
“She said, ‘You don’t have to be special in every moment, you just need to find your moments to be special,’” Smith said. “She couldn’t have said it better. I think that’s something that I’ve really gotten better with. In Trinidad, I definitely put a lot on myself. I felt like every time I got the ball, I needed to do this or that. Every time I played, I needed to show everyone who I was.
“I’ve slowly learned and I’m still learning, all you can do is be your best and do what you can to help the team.”
The stage is set in France for Smith to find her special moments. Following 17 months of preparation, the 17-year-old is ready to step into the spotlight.
"It almost feels unreal because we’ve been preparing for so long,” Smith said. “Words don’t really describe how excited I am. I have so much confidence in this team, and I really do believe that we could win this whole thing. I think it’s just a matter of maintaining the nerves, approaching them in the right way so that when we get to game time, we’re ready.”