Thorns FC

Smith puts on star performance before embarking for Women's World Cup 

Sophia Smith nets her first hat trick at Providence Park in final club game before the 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup

In her final game at Providence Park before departing for Australia and New Zealand, where she will compete in the 2023 Women’s World Cup with the US Women’s National Team, forward Sophia Smith reminded fans and the NWSL at large why she is regarded as one of the best talents in women’s soccer today.

Two first-half goals scored from outside the box, both nestled into the same lower corner of the net just below the stadium’s North End, drew reactions of joy, shock and disbelief. A third added on for good measure early in the second half, clinching a hat trick, propelled the Thorns to a 4-2 win against the Washington Spirit on Friday night.

After going seven games in all competitions without tallying a goal – a drought, at least according to her standards – Smith has found the back of the net in four-consecutive matches, a run that dates back to Portland’s 2-0 win against OL Reign in Seattle on June 3. Smith is, without a doubt, one of the most in-form goal scorers in the league going into this summer’s World Cup.

“I think tonight speaks in terms to the quality she has,” coach Mike Norris said after the match. “She’s playing with a bit of lightness. I think the goals in the last couple of weeks have helped her take a little bit of internal pressure off herself.”

It’s impossible to take eyes off Smith at any point during a Thorns game. Whether it’s a flick to propel herself past a defender or a perfect first touch to bring down a cross-field switch, Smith frequently finds herself as the fulcrum of the team’s most dangerous chances, often to a chorus of “oohs” and “ahhs.”

On her first goal, she received a direct ball in midfield, dribbled past multiple defenders and slotted the ball into the far corner of the net with a powerful low-driven shot. Her second goal, 12 minutes later, was nearly a carbon-copy of the first. When Washington leveled the score at 2-2 early in the second half, Smith secured her hat trick minutes later, receiving the ball behind line, driving even deeper into the box, and using her left foot to slot home a goal which allowed the Thorns to reclaim the lead for good.

“When I’m dribbling toward goal, if I see a sliver of an open net I’m taking a shot,” Smith said. “Recently I have had some good luck with shots from distance, so I’m just going to keep doing that.”

Tactically, there aren’t many players in the world capable of bringing as much to a team’s attack from the forward position as Smith. Even standing alone near midfield as play goes on dozens of yards behind her in the Thorns’ defensive third, opposing teams must keep at least one defender close because of the threat she presents. When Smith carries the ball from deep in midfield, she sucks in seemingly every defender in the vicinity, allowing her to dish to a teammate running into an even more dangerous position. Although known for her goal-scoring prowess, Smith is far from one-dimensional with five assists in 2023.

There’s no arguing that Smith scored three special goals on Friday night. It’s that individual brilliance the Thorns will miss over the next several months while she’s on the other side of the Pacific Ocean competing in her first-ever World Cup. But the Thorns have other weapons to take over in her absence, such as Morgan Weaver – who scored the Thorns’ fourth goal of the night, and her fourth goal in all competitions – rookie Isabella D’Aquila and NWSL veteran Michele Vasconcelos.

“Structurally, we’ll still look and feel how we should as it’s how we train every day,” Norris said. “There will be an opportunity for somebody else to show their personality, what their special traits are and how they can contribute to the group.”

Deep in the bowels of Providence Park late Friday night, Smith and Christine Sinclair shared the lectern one final time before they depart with their respective national teams on a journey halfway around the world. Wearing the same kit, they joked with one another. They exchanged a “Go USA” and “Go Canada” during their session with reporters and laughed about their locker situation with the Thorns.

In just a few weeks Smith will make her Women’s World Cup debut. Sinclair, about to play in the tournament a sixth time, knows what it takes to stand out on the world’s biggest stage. And so, as both stars headed toward the exit of the press conference room, Sinclair made one final comment, a nonchalant effort to assuage any remaining nerves her young teammate may have.

“You’ll be fine,” Sinclair told Smith with a laugh.

Both players know it and so do the 20,000-plus fans who filled Providence Park to see the club’s six national team players together one final time for the foreseeable future. The next time the 22-year-old forward suits up in front of those same fans – likely in late summer – the rest of the world will know, too.