Reissue: Are we still not talking about Sophia Smith enough?

With a new contract signed this week, it's a good time to revisit this column from 2022 that espoused praise on the brilliant Sophia Smith.

Reissue: Are we still not talking about Sophia Smith enough?
Sophia Smith, smiling after some greatness | Courtesy of the Portland Thorns

NOTE: This article was originally published on the 23rd of October 2022, on The Striker. It was written ahead of the 2022 NWSL Championship semifinal between the Portland Thorns and San Diego Wave. Last week, in March 2024, Smith signed a contract extension until 2025 with Portland. She now has the highest base salary of any player in the NWSL.

It was June in Houston, Texas. As I often do, I persuaded two friends, who had never previously been to an NWSL soccer match, to try coming out to see the Houston Dash against the Portland Thorns. 

At some point during the first half, one of those women’s soccer first-timers turned to me and says: “Who is number nine? Because she is whipping everybody.” 

That number nine was Sophia Smith. The Thorns and United States national team forward who has caught the imagination of soccer fans, new and old, across the world for her performances in 2022. 

What I am soon learning though, is that while I may consider Smith the undeniable first choice to be named NWSL MVP this year, that may not be the case for everyone. 

Despite all the noise, I thought there was surrounding Smith, and her extraordinary exploits this NWSL season, I was surprised to hear that Portland head coach Rhian Wilkinson was not yet content with the volume of the praise. 

“I keep hearing that Alex Morgan is incredible, and has won the golden boot,” Wilkinson replied to The Striker about a question regarding the most under-discussed attribute of her team on Friday. 

With 14 goals in 2022, Smith lost the golden boot race to Morgan by one solitary strike. The duo was equal for assists, with three apiece. Although, the Thorns forward did edge her Wave FC counterpart with 11 non-penalty goals. Morgan had 10 from open play. 

Morgan has since extended her tally even further ahead of Smith. In last weekend’s quarterfinal match between San Diego Wave FC and the Chicago Red Stars, the two-time World Cup winner registered her 16th goal. Striking in the 110th minute, “Baby Horse” popped up right when her team needed her most and netted the historic match-winner in a tense 2-1 win.

All the while, Smith and Thorns were on a bye week, having finished second in the standings during the regular season. That left Smith with no opportunity to reclaim the limelight as the most revered goalscorer in U.S. soccer.  

But in Wilkinson’s eyes, it is Smith’s more team-centric contributions that go under the radar and set her apart. The moments that don’t culminate in her being the one to put the ball in the back of the net. 

“Sophia has taken up so much bandwidth from opposition backlines that it has allowed our team to have a scoring profile that broke records this season. And it's not by chance. Her movement, the training sessions that the opposition probably has to do to just distract her. To get all over her, it takes three people to stop her. Which opens up space for Morgan [Weaver] or Hina [Sugita], for any one of our players that have had success scoring years.”

One could easily just see Wilkinson’s retort as a coach standing up for her player. A player that she is more familiar with. And one who she also wants to boost the confidence and profile of. Understandably, Portland's head coach did quickly confess that she was “biased” when discussing Smith. 

In spite of that bias, I am inclined to agree with Wilkinson. As devastating as Smith is as a goalscorer, what sets her apart is the other qualities of her game that she offers. Relentless ingenuity, skill, balance, poise and space creation for her teammates.

The Thorns scored 16 more goals in 2022 than they did in 2021. And that's with the NWSL regular season being shortened from 24 matches to 22. That's an overall increase of 0.85 goals per game this season. 

Another good barometer of how Smith improves those around her is noting how many other individual Thorns players' single-season goal tallies have surged in 2022. 

Morgan Weaver, Portland’s second-highest goalscorer, scored seven times in 2022 when her previous best was just one regular season goal in the 2021 season. Six of those goals came when Smith was on the pitch.

Hina Sugita may be an NWSL debutant but similarly, she had just one goal for the Japanese team INAC Kobe Leonessa last season. In 2022, she scored five with four of those occurring with Smith in the Thorns lineup.

“Even though Sophia [Smith] has been spoken about a lot, I don't think people recognize the off-the-ball work that she's doing,” Wilkinson continued.

“When you say MVP,  that is what sets her apart. A Golden Boot would have been amazing for her. But if you look at how many players have had really prolific goal-scoring seasons, and why? It is because of the space that she's created. What she's doing off the ball in the spaces she's creating for her teammates.”

One of my favorite examples of the coverage that Smith demands from opposition teams, which then opens up space for her Portland teammates, is when Weaver scored against the North Carolina Courage in August. Smith doesn't register a statistical goal involvement, but she is the one who truly makes the goal. 

Smith picked up the ball just outside the center of the Courage box. She carried the ball forward 10 yards. Each touch of the ball is perfectly executed. Not too heavy, not too light. Her glue-like control helps her swivel past North Carolina defenders as if they were mannequins. Her composed dribbling style drew attention, she then scanned the pitch to find the open player. 

As the sequence evolved, Smith pulled in seven Courage players with her close control and movement between the defensive lines. That's an outrageous feat. Something only the world's best players can accomplish.

Smith isn't aesthetically aggressive with her attack either. She is elegant but deadly. Which is what makes it all the more menacing. It's as if she were a cat playing with a mouse in its paw, or a spider slowly entangling a wasp in its web. 

Eventually, Smith laid off the ball to Sugita, who sent in a cross, which was then tipped on by Sinclair before being prodded in at the back post by Weaver. To emphasize, Smith doesn't get any statistical record of this goal. But it's an outrageous piece of skill. 

Smith's profound brilliance in the build-up to that goal is just one example. There is plenty more where that came from, albeit this article will not comb through them all. 

Finally, though, one statistic - that isn't commonplace or necessarily 100% agreed upon - that could show Smith to be the undisputed NWSL MVP is American Soccer Analysis' goals added metric.

Goals added (G+) measures a player’s total on-ball contribution in attack and defense. It does this by calculating how much each touch changes their team’s chances of scoring and conceding across two possessions.

Both overall in the NWSL and per 90 minutes Smith ranks first in the league for G+. In comparison, Morgan comes in at 13th and 31st for total G+ and G+ per 90 minutes. 

Does this make Smith the undisputed NWSL MVP? No, that's not how soccer or accolade voting works. 

But does it mean that maybe we should be talking a little bit more about all the nuances of Smith's majestic 2022 season? In this intrepid journalist's mind, yes. Yes, indeed.