BALTIMORE, Md. – It’s tempting, perhaps even natural, to see a 19-year-old athlete amid of group of older players – talents who’ve had one to three additional years to mature and develop – and ask whether things are going too fast for her. Granted, nobody from afar can ever know another person’s path, but questions come from a good place. Most just want the best for the athletes they follow.
Still, those questions don’t take long to answer when it comes to Sophia Smith. Developed by the talent factory at Real Colorado, Smith has been playing with her senior national team since she was 16 years old. A various points over her last collegiate season – her second at Stanford University – the attacker flashed a skill level that was beyond that level. And on Thursday, one day after being officially confirmed as eligible for the 2020 National Women’s Soccer League College Draft, Smith was selected first overall by Portland Thorns FC, becoming the youngest player ever bestowed with that honor.
“In the back of my head, it is always where I wanted to end up,” Smith said, of her choice to forgo her last two years in college to turn professional. “It was always an option. It was just a matter of deciding when: when that time would come.
“I felt it now. This was my time. And I’m so excited to be in the NWSL.”
Just as in the previous draft, though, when her former Stanford teammate Tierna Davidson turned professional with a year of eligibility left, Smith’s place in this year’s draft was not a given. Having earned a scholarship to a prestigious university, Smith had more incentive to stay in school than most, with the talent base in Palo Alto making a potential repeat as national champions possible next season.
“It’s a very tough decision,” Smith admitted, of leaving Stanford two years early, “especially to have to move early on, at a young age. But it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while, now; talking to my parents about it; having discussions with people I trust. It’s been a process.”
A process, albeit one with no single point of focus.
“This is a big jump from college to the professional level,” she concedes, “And then things like emotionally, socially. Am I ready to leave behind college, and the friends that I made there? Am I mentally ready? Mentally tough enough to make this big change in my life? Those are big topics that we talked about and came to the conclusion that I’m more than ready.”
“More than ready,” was a theme for Smith, on Thursday in Baltimore. Amid an NWSL culture that’s just getting used to underclassmen choosing the professional ranks over the final college seasons, “why” is implied in almost every question. Why did you do it? Why did you decide you were ready? Why did you feel you were ready for this risk?
In the face of all of it, Smith was unwavering. The speculation before the draft. The media’s questions afterward. Even her new team’s website, exploring her logic and process. Though it made sense that somebody who has been part of her national team’s last two camps would want to test herself at a new level, the vision still needed to be explained in her own words.
“I was confident, and I knew my parents were confident in me,” Smith explained. “And, obviously, [Thorns head coach] Mark [Parsons] was confident in me, that I was physically ready. That’s something you have to take into consideration, but I knew that I was ready.”
The physicality question is going to follow her into the NWSL, though it won’t linger for long. Look at her vitals, and 5-foot-6 sticks out, prompting questions from the unknowing about whether she’s ready to compete against players on the most athletic circuit in the world. A quick glimpse of her video, though, shows a level of speed, skill, intelligence and instinct that can manage most physical obstacles. There will certainly be NWSL fullbacks who will be able to keep up with her, perhaps even push her around. But Smith’s elite skills – as well as her own physicality – mean questions about her size should, in time, be rendered moot.
Instead, the biggest question around Smith should be an equally obvious one. As the youngest player ever taken, the arc to her career’s prime may be longer than most – even if steps toward that point could also be more productive than others’. Like most young forwards who come into the NWSL, success may not be a straight line, and while she has the talent to smooth the transition, there’s no getting around chronology. She is 19 years old.
“She’s still a young player and she’s going through a lot of change, obviously, in the next couple of months,” Parsons said. “There’s going to be transition. There’s going to be good days. There’s going to be bad days. It’s going to take time. It’s going to take patience.
“But on the other side of that, there could be some special, special moments. Special years. And we’re pulling confident in not only what she’s done so far but matching her into an environment that’s not only perfect for her but will allow her to thrive.”
As part of what she’s done so far, it’s important to remember Smith’s background. She wasn’t just a standout youth talent. She stood out at one of the prominent talent developers in the country: Real Colorado. She didn’t just excel in college. She did so for what, at the moment, is the preeminent program in college soccer: Stanford. Even at the national-team level, she hasn’t just gotten looks with her country’s senior team. She’s done so at ages that suggest judging her by her age could, when assessing her now, be more misleading than helpful.
“I feel like I’m a lot older, a lot more mature,” Smith said, when reflecting back on her first days with the U.S.’s senior squad. “When I was 16, it was hard to relate to some of the women there, and some of their lifestyles, because I was so young. I was still in high school. They were talking about weddings and buying houses, and I was ready to go to homecoming when I got back. It was different.”
Was different. Having just come back from another senior camp, Smith’s updated her assessment. “I definitely think this camp, being a little older, was a little bit helpful,” she said. She confesses to still be starstruck by players like Tobin Heath and Lindsey Horan – new teammates in Portland – as well as the spectacle that surrounded Thursday, her first day as a professional. But, as with everything else that’s gone into her last week’s course, Smith is pressing forward with a “more than ready” approach.
“A lot of people told me coming into today that your life is about to change, and I never really took that in – that it would be that big of a deal,” she admitted. “But it is. And I think I’m ready for it. I’m excited for it, and it’s awesome. I like it.”