Rookie Smith hopes to build on successful Thorns debut

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Portland Thorns rookie Sophia Smith laughs when she recalls the conversation with her dad back in high school about her blossoming soccer career.

The No. 1 pick in the National Women’s Soccer League draft and U.S. national team prospect comes from a family of basketball players — and it was just assumed early on she’d head in the same direction.

But no.

“I think he quietly knew that I liked soccer more. But when I had to finally decide and just kind of cut basketball out for good, it was a tough few months, but we got over it,” she said. “He loves soccer now.”

Turned out Smith was right to choose soccer. It paved her way to Stanford and a national title, and now to a blossoming career in the NWSL.

Smith did not play in the NWSL’s Challenge Cup tournament in Utah this summer because of an injury, but in her first match as a professional earlier this month, she came in as a substitute and scored against the Utah Royals.

Although it wasn’t official — the league’s fall series games, a chance for teams to get some games in amid the pandemic, don’t count — it was a good indication of Smith’s promise. And it wasn’t the first time she scored in a debut: she scored 17 minutes into her first game as a freshman at Stanford.

Smith grew up in Colorado. Dad Kenny Smith played basketball at Wyoming and sister Savannah is the all-time career scoring leader for Northern Colorado.

“I did play basketball for a while, I think up until freshman year of high school, when soccer and basketball kind of overlapped and it got too crazy. I had to pick, but I’d say I just fell in love with soccer,” she said. “Soccer was more of a sport where I could be myself more, if that makes sense. I felt a little bit more free on the field than I did on the court.”

Just a few months into her freshman year at Stanford, Smith broke her leg in a match against Utah. She challenged herself to get back as quickly as possible, and as a sophomore last year she won a national title with Stanford. She had a hat trick in the semifinal against UCLA.

The next two months were a blur.

“The day after we won the national championship in college, I left the next morning to national team camp. Then after that, there was another national team camp and in that camp I was in the process of making the decision to leave college and enter the draft. The draft was the week after that camp ended. So it was all really quick.”

She follows a line of Stanford players chosen with the top pick: Andi Sullivan went No. 1 to the Spirit in 2018, and Tierna Davidson went No. 1 to the Red Stars in 2019.

It all ground to a halt for Smith because of COVID-19. She was late to camp because she was in the Dominican Republic with the U.S. under-20 national team. Two days after arriving in Portland, the league suspended play. She hadn’t even met her teammates.

Smith was hopeful when the league announced the Challenge Cup, played in a bubble in Utah, but she was held out of the tournament with a left knee injury.

“I think injuries are always tough no matter what. But then to have this big event going on, and at the time we thought that might be our only thing going on this whole year, so to have to sit out of that and watch it from the sidelines was extremely tough because all I wanted to do was just go out there and play,” she said.

She got her chance — and scored — on Sept. 20 against Utah. She’ll get another Wednesday night when the Thorns host the OL Reign.

“It was great to see her on the pitch and now we get to build,” Thorns coach Mark Parsons said. “Yeah, she’s going to be a fun player.”

The ultimate objective is to earn a spot on the senior national team. Smith was a standout on the under-20 team, scoring in a youth record nine consecutive international games in 2018. She was named U.S. Soccer’s Young Player of the Year in 2017.

It’s why she decided to leave Stanford after her sophomore year, even though it’s still something of a novelty for women to leave college early for a pro career in soccer.

“I was ready for a new challenge,” she said. “And I was ready to kind of take that next step in my career, because at the end of the day, I have big goals and big ambitions for myself, and I believe that this was what I needed to do to get one step closer to those.”

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