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Case for the NWSL Golden Boot: Sophia Smith remains on top despite injury

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Sophia Smith scored for the Portland Thorns less than one minute into her return from the World Cup. (Soobum Im/USA TODAY Sports)

Sophia Smith may be out with an injury, but so far nobody has come close to touching the Portland Thorns star in the NWSL Golden Boot race.

While it’s tight atop the table, with just four goals separating six players, Smith has retained the lead despite missing two consecutive matchweeks with an MCL sprain. She leads the way with 11 goals, while Ashley Hatch and Kerolin have nine, and neither of them found the back of the net this weekend.

So what makes the 23-year-old forward the front-runner for the Golden Boot, even with her injury keeping her off the pitch?

Simply put: Other players have failed to step up. Her Thorns teammate Morgan Weaver is the only player to have been consistent in her scoring over the last three weeks, tallying three goals in three games to bring herself within four goals of Smith. Weaver is tied with Debinha of the Kansas City Current and Lynn Williams of Gotham FC with seven on the season.

Yet with three games left in the regular season, the idea that Weaver, Debinha or Williams could tie or overcome Smith is a stretch.

Looking at the two players just two goals behind to Smith, Hatch has two goals in her last five games for the Washington Spirit. And while she had not gone more than one regular-season match without scoring since June, that changed in September, as she has not scored in each of Washington’s last two games.

While Hatch could get two goals in the next three games to close out the season, that would be a big ask against Kansas City, OL Reign and the North Carolina Courage. Both the Reign and the Courage have been defensively sound this season.

Additionally, Hatch hasn’t scored against Kansas City or OL Reign yet in the 2023 regular season, and she scored just once against North Carolina all the way back in April.

Kerolin’s output has been similar, with two goals in the last five games for the Courage. Her stats are buoyed by a hat trick scored against Chicago in June. And with games against OL Reign, the San Diego Wave and the Spirit coming up, it could be difficult for her to close the gap with Smith. The 23-year-old forward failed to score in North Carolina’s first game against the Reign and scored one each against San Diego and Washington.

And even if either Kerolin or Hatch were to match Smith’s 11 goals, Smith holds the edge in the tiebreaker with five assists, which sits second in the league behind teammate Sam Coffey. Kerolin has just three assists, while Hatch has two. So both players more than likely would need to surpass the 11-goal threshold to beat Smith, which would mean scoring at least a goal in each of their final three games.

While not statistically impossible, that does mean Smith still holds the best odds to take home the Golden Boot for the 2023 NWSL season. The reigning league MVP scored six goals in June ahead of the World Cup, and that surge could propel her to the trophy even as she remains sidelined week-to-week with her knee injury.