PORTLAND, Ore. -- It wasn’t her first touch, but it sure felt like it. In Sunday’s 72nd minute, it was Sophia Smith’s third touch of the ball; the third since she made her Portland Thorns FC debut.
The first was a laid off pass in her own half. The second was a shot that forced a corner, but off that corner, this first pick in the 2020 NWSL College Draft had her breakthrough, heading home a cross from Meghan Klingenberg three minutes into her Thorns FC debut as part of Portland’s 3-0 victory over visiting Utah Royals FC.
“After scoring a goal, it's so real.” Smith said after the game. “I'm still trying to kind of process it. But it's so exciting.”
A persistent knee problem had sidelined Smith during July’s NWSL Challenge Cup, meaning the last competitive action she saw was last winter, during February and March’s CONCACAF Under-20 World Cup qualifying. With Smith among the players missed in Utah, the Thorns attack struggled, scoring only four times in six games on their way to the tournament’s semifinals.
Smith, Simone Charley and Lindsey Horan all found net on Sunday, meaning Portland had its most productive attacking performance since last August 25, when the team defeated the Chicago Red Stars, 3-0, at Providence Park. For the Thorns’ head coach, the struggles of Utah shouldn’t be seen in contrast to the successes of Sunday.
“I think we moved forward a little bit, just like he had in the Challenge Cup,” Mark Parsons said. “The short version is: We moved forward during the Challenge Cup. We continued to improve, but we didn't have much time with a new group of new players. Today, you saw a group that's taken another small step forward.
“It's not can't score, now scoring three goals, now everything's fixed. No way. It wasn't that bad [in Utah], and today, it's not that great. It's an improvement.”
Parsons would go on to call the win a “building block.” Clearly, that is true on a team level, with Portland not only putting in a more convincing performance than Utah’s last but doing so while Smith debuted. That Charley, another young attacker expected to improve, also provided a highlight gives Portland something every team wants from the Fall Series: a glimpse of a brighter future.
“First of all, it was an amazing ball from Lindsey,” Charley said when asked about her goal, pointing to the long pass by Horan that isolated her against Utah’s defenders. “As I always say, my teammates make my job so easy. I'm very grateful for that. Just great vision on her part.
“The goals we scored were a culmination of the hard work we've been putting in these past few weeks. We definitely had our fair share of adversity, with the wildfires and being indoors, and having to work through that. But I think our attitude has been great ...The result today, you can see the hard work that we've been [putting in]. It's finally just come together.”
Charley’s goal was arguably her best as a Thorn, one that required her to quickly control and maneuver through multiple defenders before finishing with her weaker foot. But given the anticipation that built since January’s draft, Sunday will be remembered for one person. It will be remembered for Smith’s debut. It will be remembered for her goal.
“Injuries are hard in so many ways,” Smith said, having endured a major injury during her time at Stanford. “I've had to learn to be patient when I'm super close to being able to play but I'm just not quite there yet …
“I feel really good about where I am now, so I'm just excited to keep playing and keep growing, hopefully get more and more minutes in each game.The positive out of it besides a good team win is I feel good and I feel healthy.”
Smith is expected to be a special talent - somebody who can have a huge impact at both the club and international levels. With her back on the field, Portland fans can start thinking about what that means for the 2021 Thorns.
In Utah, the draft’s second pick, Morgan Weaver, flashed her potential, scoring the only goal in a quarterfinal victory over the North Carolina Courage. But she was never supposed to be a lone star. There, she featured with Charley and Tyler Lussi, but Smith was supposed to round out this season’s attacking core. Without her, the Thorns weren’t themselves.
“Soph's gone through a lot,” Parsons explained, “and it's obviously been a challenging year on the physical side. Our medical team, performance team has done such a great job. She has mentally done a great job. Today, to get her on the pitch, just was special ... she's going to be a fun player.
Now, fans have a better look at what the Thorns could be, even if Smith only played 21 minutes on Sunday. Both those 21 minutes were tantalizing, especially the first three that produced a goal. Before then, it was Charley and Lussi that helped Portland dictate the game’s terms, and Charley who showed she’s still a developing talent.
“I'm proud that we've taken a forward step,” Parsons said, “but we've got many, many more steps ahead with the attacking side of the game.”
Sunday’s game was supposed to be a step forward. That’s what the Fall Series is about. But with that step taken, the Thorns can now look to their next point of improvement, and keep doing so throughout the Fall Series. All along, 2021’s potential will be in focus.