Sophia Smith dazzles in front of coaches who see the best in her

Sophia Smith got back to her scoring ways against Jamaica on Thursday. (Azael Rodriguez/Getty Images)

Sophia Smith is getting used to scoring braces. She’d done it in three consecutive games for club and country in June as the U.S. women’s national team prepared for group play at the Concacaf W Championship.

But in her first-ever World Cup qualifying match on Monday, she didn’t find the back of the net in a 3-0 win over Haiti, snapping her streak. On a hot evening in which she was unusually quiet and unable to make plays with precision in the attacking third, head coach Vlatko Andonovski said afterward that he didn’t think it was her best game.

So, he had a meeting with her ahead of Thursday’s match against Jamaica.

“She’s a perfectionist,” Andonovski said. “She wants to score a goal, two goals, which is great, but sometimes it can be counterproductive … I did have a meeting with her and talked about that to reassure her that regardless of what the game is going to be, regardless of what this game is going to look like or the next game was going to look like, she will be a starter for this team, just because we know how good she is now and we can see her potential and how good she can be in the future.”

Smith took the field on Thursday ready to fly. Five minutes into the game, she buried the opening goal, a world-class finish off the outside of her foot. Three minutes later, the brace master scored her second goal in what would eventually be a 5-0 win for the USWNT. After Mexico lost to Haiti in the night cap, the USWNT officially qualified for the 2023 World Cup.

“Soph is an incredible young player,” Andonovski said of the 21-year-old. “To be a starter on the best team in the world is not easy. It comes with a lot of weight. She wants to be the best every time she steps on the field … She does have potential to be one of the best players in the world and I think that she demonstrated that in the first half, which I thought was an incredible 45 minutes for her.”

Andonovski’s history with Smith stretches back to 2020, when she earned her first cap and was later promoted to the starting lineup. One coach who has been aware of Smith’s potential even longer than Andonovski, however, was the manager on the other side of the field Thursday — Jamaica head coach Lorne Donaldson.

When Smith and forward partner Mallory Pugh were young teenagers, they spent hours training with Donaldson, the club president of Real Colorado, outside of team practices. Smith would drive an hour and a half with her mother to Denver from their home in Windsor.

“He is probably the most important person when it comes to who has helped me get to where I am today,” Smith told Just Women’s Sports in June. “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.”

On Thursday in Monterrey, Mexico, Donaldson was witness to a bittersweet, full-circle moment as Smith scored two goals against his team at the highest level of women’s soccer.

“They played with me for a long time,” Donaldson said of Smith and Pugh after the game. “They’re like family. We’re still family. You give [Sophia] half a chance, she’s going to take it. Excellent footballer. So, I don’t expect less from her. I mean, we talk about her a lot in meetings. She’s a special talent.”

Pugh also buried a one-timer shortly after Smith’s second goal, but the goal was called back for offsides.

Smith’s early goals dug Jamaica into a hole they never could climb out of, three days removed from an upset win over Mexico in the opener.

“It’s super important,” Smith said. “We always want to get on the front foot early, and I think we did just that. They were two great assists and I think when we can start the game like that, it’s always going to be a good, fun game to play in.”

Smith and the USWNT conclude group play on Monday, when they meet Mexico at 10 p.m. ET. The hosts were expected to be the USWNT’s toughest competition in the group stage, and now Mexico will be playing to survive in World Cup qualifying after dropping its first two games.

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