That was the difference that made Alex Morgan the talk of the NWSL over Sophia Smith at the end of the 2022 regular season. Smith finished with 14 goals for the Portland Thorns, while the San Diego Wave’s Morgan won the Golden Boot with 15. Smith and Morgan were each nominated for this year’s NWSL MVP award, along with Mallory Pugh (Chicago Red Stars), Debinha (North Carolina Courage) and Naomi Girma (San Diego Wave).
In a pre-match press conference ahead of Sunday’s semifinal between Smith and Morgan’s teams, Thorns head coach Rhian Wilkinson said Smith has not gotten enough praise for her production this season.
“I mean, Alex Morgan is an incredible, incredible athlete, and has won the Golden Boot,” she said. “Sophia has taken up so much bandwidth from opposition backlines that it has allowed our team to have a scoring profile that has broken records this season. And it’s not by chance. Her movement — they probably have training sessions that opposition have to do to just get all over her. It takes three people to stop Soph.”
This year, Smith set a new single-season scoring record for Portland with 14 goals, passing Lindsey Horan’s 13. Smith’s count includes four braces, tying her with Naho Kawasumi and Sam Kerr for the most braces in an NWSL season.
Smith’s ability to draw in opposing backlines with her speed and scoring touch opens up space for other Thorns attackers, such as Morgan Weaver and Hina Sugita, and that’s shown up on the scoresheet. Sugita enters the playoffs with five goals and four assists, while Weaver has seven goals and three assists.
Smith, Sugita and Weaver are three of five players to record at least three assists for the Thorns this season, along with Yazmeen Ryan and Olivia Moultrie.
With Smith playing 1,452 minutes across 18 games this year, Portland scored a total of 49 goals, the third-most in a single season in league history.
“I don’t think people recognize that off-the-ball work that [Smith’s] doing, the assists she’s creating,” said Wilkinson. “I recognize I’m biased, but when you say MVP, that is what sets her apart.
“Definitely 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 that is, it’s because of the spaces she’s created. I think that hasn’t been spoken about enough, what she’s doing off the ball in the spaces she’s creating for her teammates.”
The Thorns and Wave kick off at 5 p.m. ET on Sunday at Providence Park in Portland, Ore. (CBS Sports, Twitch). The winner advances to the championship game on Oct. 29 and will play either No. 1 OL Reign or No. 5 Kansas City Current, who go head-to-head in Sunday’s other semifinal at 7:30 p.m. ET in Seattle (CBSSN, Twitch).
Jessa Braun is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering the NWSL and USWNT. Follow her on Twitter @jessabraun.