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Sophia Smith comes full circle in first game at home with USWNT

(Jason Mowry/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The last time Sophia Smith played in her home state of Colorado was during college in the fall of 2019 — a 4-0 win for Stanford over the Colorado Buffs.

In the short two and a half years since then, she won the national title, got drafted first overall to the Portland Thorns, earned her first cap with the U.S. women’s national team and quickly rose as one of their star forwards.

On Saturday, she returns for her first game in Colorado with the USWNT. The match at DSG Park in Commerce City is the first of a two-game series that will end in Utah on Tuesday, serving as preparation for the Concacaf World Cup Qualifying in July.

Playing at home is a dream come true because that’s where it all started almost 22 years ago.

‘That’s how I fell in love with it’

With two sporty sisters who were four and five years older, Sophia was already on the sidelines of soccer fields and basketball courts at just two days old in Windsor, Colo.

She jumped right into athletic shenanigans as soon as she could walk. Literally. Her little legs would leap off the sixth step of the staircase when someone walked by, just to see if they would catch her. By two years old, she was in the backyard running around with her sisters, Gabrielle and Savannah, trying to compete at their level. She’d jump off the trampoline to dunk balls into basketball nets to prove she could be like them.

Watching her sisters play soccer and trying to keep up with them in the backyard became her first memories of the sport as she got older.

“I think that’s how I fell in love with it, or how I was even made aware of it,” she told Just Women’s Sports.

‘I just want to play soccer’

Sophia’s soccer career started in kindergarten, the same year she met future USWNT teammate Jaelin Howell.

In a class of 18 boys and four girls, Sophia was excited when her teacher told the class a new girl was coming from Florida. But then, a couple days later when the new student arrived, she stole Sophia’s nap-time square. It was Howell.

In a video for the U.S. national team, Howell jokes that at the time Sophia leaned over and whispered in her ear, “I’m never going to be your friend.”

But of course, they became friends.

The tomboys bonded over their love for sports when they hung out with the boys at recess. They realized their similarities when Martha and Rob Martin, the parents of another girl in their kindergarten class, started a rec soccer team they both joined.

The coaches watched a series of kids’ tapes, put together by German soccer player Franz Beckenbauer, with what Beckenbauer referred to as “fast forward” skills. From there the Martins created a technique curriculum that consisted of 20 to 30 skills to teach the new team, the Timnath Twisters. Before long, the players were doing Maradona turns in their little swirly pink socks they tie-dyed themselves.

“[Rob and Martha] taught the girls so much,” said Smith’s mother, Mollie. “They were amazing.”

There was an activity every practice where kids could demonstrate new techniques they learned. Patches were the reward that they got to iron onto their red-and-white reversible jerseys. Howell was hungry for patches and never came to practice without a new skill. For Sophia, games were more important than practices at the time. But even during games, she’d be playing just like any other kid — until her dad showed up.

“Any time her dad showed up, she’d pick the pace up 10 fold and got really fast and started scoring a million goals,” Rob said. “It was kind of funny. Kenny, her dad, was obviously a big motivation for her. When she saw him she just lit up. … It wasn’t like, ‘Ooh, dad’s here, I better get to work.’ It was more like, ‘Ooh, dad’s here!’ — big smile on her face — and got to work.”

Family has always been important to Sophia. These days, when she’s lucky enough to get a small window of time at home, she spends every minute with her family — and also at her favorite restaurant, Jim’s Wings.

The Smiths are a basketball family. Just like Kenny who played basketball for the University of Wyoming, Sophia’s older sisters became invested in the sport as well. Sophia would still go on to play basketball in her freshman year of high school. She loved all sports. But for her, soccer became the priority.

“She just said, ‘I love soccer, I just want to play soccer,’” Mollie said.

“Oh, that must be so hard for Kenny!” people told Mollie.

“But it wasn’t really that hard because we saw how much she loved playing soccer,” Mollie said.

As Sophia neared her preteen years with the Timnath Twisters, the club decided the team became too supreme and had to split up. Despite Rob and Martha’s objections, Sophia was among those pulled into a different group. The team’s dominance wasn’t because the Martins encouraged them to be that way — they had never coached to win. They always told the parents to cheer for good passes and impressive technique instead of goals.

It was just that Sophia and Howell had become too good.

The Portland Thorns' Sophia Smith celebrates a goal against the Chicago Red Stars at Providence Park on May 16, 2021, in Portland, Oregon. (Craig Mitchelldyer/ISI Photos via Getty Images)

‘I love it here’

Sophia and Howell played a couple of years locally for Arsenal Colorado before they heard about Real Colorado. A young teenager at this point, Sophia and her mom got the car and made the hour-and-a-half drive to south Denver to meet with President Lorne Donaldson and see how the club was run. It was everything Sophia wanted.

“Oh my gosh, I love it here,” Sophia told her mom. “I will do anything to make it happen.”

So, Mollie quit her job of over 20 years. She found a different one that allowed her to get off earlier so she could drive Sophia to soccer four to five times a week. She told Sophia that if she ever grumbled about the drive or the time, they would stop going.

Sophia didn’t complain once.

“She was so grateful, thankful,” said Mollie.

Those car rides became the most productive part of Sophia’s day. It was her only time to do homework, and she had a lot of it. When she was finished, she would eat, nap and get dressed.

“It was kind of crazy,” said Mollie. “Looking back, I’m not sure how we did that or what we were thinking … We just saw her determination and her love.”

‘The two most exciting players to watch’

Immediately after Sophia joined Real, her coach Neil introduced her to a player famous among the club community: Mallory Pugh.

Everyone would tell her, “You have to go watch Mal play.”

Sophia started reading about Pugh, who was two years older, and asking her parents if the three of them could stick around after her games to watch Pugh’s. She would sit on the sideline and drop her jaw in awe of how fast Pugh moved, her finishing, every little thing she did.

“In so many ways that has helped me get to where I am today because I had someone who was doing exactly what I hoped to do, right in front of me, and could just kind of learn from her and, in some ways, follow in her footsteps,” Sophia said.

They began training together, too. Pugh would sometimes train with Sophia’s team to get extra touches in, and Sophia was invited to join some of Pugh’s practices. On the weekends, Donaldson would gather players who wanted additional sessions, including Pugh and Sophia, and help take their skills to another level.

Donaldson was hard on Sophia at times — a lot of times — but that’s what she needed to be pushed to new heights. He knew what to say, when to say it and how to get her fired up.

“He is probably the most important person when it comes to who has helped me get to where I am today,” she said. “He believed in me and saw potential in me and knew exactly how to make me be better and reach my potential, so absolutely Lorne Donaldson is someone from Colorado who has changed my life and helped me become the person and player that I am.”

In March 2017, Sophia was just 16 years old when she got her first call-up to the senior national team, with none other than Jaelin Howell. The two were now classmates at Fossil Ridge High.

“It’s obviously nice to go into an environment like that with a familiar face because obviously every other face is not familiar,” Sophia said. “It’s a pretty intimidating environment, and so having Jaelin in that camp was kind of a breath of fresh air and just knowing that if anything, we have each other and we’re not in this alone and we can talk to each other about things.”

After heading to college and truly parting ways for the first time in their soccer career, with Howell going to Florida State, they got their first caps together in late 2020 during a friendly against the Netherlands.

“To come full circle and be able to play together with the national team is just a really cool moment I think,” Sophia said.

In that game, Smith also became the first player born in the 2000s to make an appearance with the national team.

During her early days with Real she had wanted to follow in Pugh’s footsteps, and now she was a young prodigy just like Pugh, who started setting records as a teenager in 2016. At the age of 17, Pugh became the youngest player to be named to the USWNT in 15 years.

Coming into Saturday’s game in Colorado, Smith and Pugh, who plays in the NWSL for the Chicago Red Stars, are partners on the USWNT starting forward line. Head coach Vlatko Andonovski has spent the last half year evaluating their chemistry, and now, as they near Concacaf World Cup Qualifying, they’re the leading stars on the squad.

In just 15 appearances, Smith already has four goals and three assists with the national team. She’s the second-leading scorer in the NWSL this season with eight goals, just two ahead of third-place Pugh.

“They’re probably the two most exciting players to watch right now in the [NWSL],” Andonovski said. “I don’t think it will be a surprise if I say that it will be extremely difficult for a new player to come in and take their starting spots right now. … I’m excited for the form they’re in, I’m excited for the way they play, I’m excited they’re going to contribute not just for their team but also for their country.”

The United States' Sophia Smith (11) celebrates with Catarina Macario (20) and Mallory Pugh during a game between Uzbekistan and USWNT at Field on April 9, 2022, in Columbus, Ohio. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos via Getty Images)

‘It’s super special’

Smith, Howell and Pugh have all been named to the roster for Saturday’s friendly in Commerce City, joining Lindsey Horan for a total of four Colorado natives on the team.

“It’s pretty great,” said Smith and Howell’s first coach, Martha. “We’re pretty proud of them and what they’ve accomplished.”

Smith’s home is about an hour drive from DSG Park. While a lot of her high school friends have moved away, most of her family will be there, including her niece and nephew and her grandparents, who have never seen her compete in a USWNT jersey.

“It’s super special to be able to play there because they’ll be able to come watch me play,” Smith said.

“We could not be more excited,” Mollie said.

Jessa Braun is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering the NWSL and USWNT. Follow her on Twitter @jessabraun.