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Sophia Smith is in her winning era for Thorns and USWNT

Sophia Smith leads the NWSL with 10 goals in the regular season as she heads to the World Cup with the USWNT. (Gary Rohman/USA TODAY Sports)

Sophia Smith makes her return to the U.S. women’s national team this week for the first time since 2022, but you wouldn’t have any sense she’s taken time off. After using the NWSL offseason to rehab a lingering foot injury, Smith has begun the 2023 NWSL season on fire, scoring and assisting on a goal in the Thorns’ opening match against the Orlando Pride, before registering her first career hat trick against the Kansas City Current the following weekend.

Winning has always come somewhat easily to the young star. Smith finished 2022 with 11 goals for the U.S. and 15 for the Portland Thorns, making a late challenge for the NWSL Golden Boot race while winning the NWSL MVP award and leading the Thorns to their third NWSL championship. Her finishing has long been clinical, but what has begun to shift for the 22-year-old is her transcendent ability to execute and take over games in the biggest moments.

In Saturday’s 2022 championship rematch, the most-watched NWSL regular-season game ever on CBS, the Thorns pulled out a 4-1 win. But in the second half, the Current made a run at an equalizer after getting a goal back and pulling closer at 2-1.

Smith put an end to the comeback herself, with a dribbling sequence that all but walked the ball into the back of the net.

She then capped off the match with a golazo from distance, after the Kansas City defense unwisely left the striker with space and time at the top of the box.

“I love coming and playing in a stadium where the crowd is against you,” Smith said after the game. “I think it gives the team a little bit of edge, a little bit of energy, and we just kind of use that to our advantage. So, it’s pretty fun to put away a few goals and hear silence.”

Smith is a low-key presence off the field, but on the field that “edge” is palpable. The league MVP has seemed to crave moments like her game-winning goal in the fourth minute of the 2022 NWSL final, when her shrugging celebration became immortalized in league iconography.

Against the Current again on Saturday, Smith gestured a shushing motion to the crowd after her first goal, a well-slotted penalty to put the Thorns up 2-0 in front of over 11,000 fans. She now has four goals and one assist in two league matches, setting the tone for a World Cup year in which she wants to take on even bigger challenges.

“I don’t know if I would refer to it as a villain era, I’m like a very sweet, happy person,” she told reporters with a smile from USWNT camp this week. “I think on the field, yeah, I don’t play games. I don’t step on a field to do anything but win, and I take a lot of pride in that.

“So, I guess this era is just winning, and doing everything I can to do that and to help my team,” she continued.

The larger sports conversation in recent weeks has been centered on the idea of athletes in women’s sports expressing their emotions on the field or the court in a way that is all too common on the men’s side. As the profile of women’s sports rises as a whole, fans are forced to confront their own biases about the passion athletes show while in the thick of competition.

Smith welcomes the ongoing shift in perspective.

“I think there’s nothing wrong with a little bit of banter between teams, and a little bit of talk here and there,” she said. “It’s never disrespectful, but it can add a little bit of fun and entertainment to the game. And I I love to put on a show, I love to try crazy things when I’m playing. I feel confident enough to do those things.”

Smith’s renewed intensity and creativity is good news for the USWNT, who will play their last two friendlies this week before final roster decisions are made for the 2023 World Cup in July. Paired on the wings with the equally-focused Mallory Swanson, Smith presents problems that opposing defenses are finding increasingly difficult to solve.

She’s also fully recovered from a grueling 2022 campaign. Staying patient in the offseason and missing the 2023 SheBelieves Cup, which the USWNT won in late February, proved critical to her physical and mental health.

“I think during that time, I learned a lot about myself,” she said. “I learned how to be patient if I put things in perspective and realized how big a year this was. So, it was important for me to take the time I needed to get healthy and to address all the things that I didn’t have time to address last year.”

A fully healthy Sophia Smith running at both NWSL and international backlines is a scary thought for her opposition, but an exciting one for fans. And now is the right time for her to begin to move into peak form.

“Especially in a World Cup year, you put things in perspective that come this summer, that’s when you need to peak, that’s when you need to be healthy. That’s when you need to be as fit as you possibly can be,” she said.

After this international break, Smith will have until the middle of June to make her mark on the NWSL before heading to New Zealand for her first major international tournament. That she’s already approaching the year like a pro is a promising sign for both of her teams’ chances.

Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.