Who should start at striker for the United States at this World Cup? Where are the team’s goals going to come from? Perhaps most crucially, who is the best player on the side? The answer to these questions has been clear to anyone who has been paying attention, but Sophia Smith made sure the entire world knew them after the USWNT’s match against Vietnam at the 2023 World Cup.
In helping her team win its opening match … no, wait, scratch that. In leading her team almost single-handedly to a 3-0 opening match win in which the USWNT looked sluggish and comically, tragically woeful in front of goal, Smith proved that she is the sun around which this team should rotate. Sure, there are more experienced players on any potential Best XI than the 22-year-old phenom, but Smith made it quite clear that this moment is not too big for her.
Starting out on the left wing, with Alex Morgan in the center, Smith used her pace and straight-line bulldozing to give Vietnam fits, drawing defenders her way to clear up the center for the midfield runs of Lindsey Horan and Savannah DeMelo. In theory, those runs should have opened up space and shots for the team, and in practice they somewhat did that, but a lot of the final balls into the box were just a touch off throughout the night. One foot here or one foot there, and maybe this article would be highlighting Morgan, or Horan, or DeMelo.
Instead, though, as her teammates flubbed chance after chance in front of goal, Smith just did it herself. In the 14th minute, Horan launched a rare good long ball to Morgan, who flipped it to a charging Smith in the box. Rather than rushing a one-touch shot with a defender on her shoulder, Smith simply pushed through with a perfectly controlled first touch that gave her enough separation on a tight angle to hit a shot across the goal and in for the opener:
Unlike in the USWNT’s last opening match a World Cup (the 13-0 demolition of Thailand in 2019), this match did not get out of control. Credit to Vietnam, who played a disciplined press and left the U.S. have free to try exceedingly difficult passes, equally challenging shots, and so many headers. Seriously, so many headers, and none of them were any good.
Also not good was Morgan’s penalty shot in the 44th minute:
Oops. Still, though, this United States side is, if anything, extremely talented, and even on a day when the players seemingly come out sluggish and out of form, there’s enough individual quality to dominate games anyway. Just a few minutes after the missed penalty, that individual quality came from, well, Smith again.
Her rebound shot wasn’t the prettiest, and the long VAR delay while the referee checked for an offside impediment was endless, but it counts as a goal and a first-half brace for Smith nonetheless. Even her vague mishits still are on point and on target, and suddenly the United States was able to go into halftime not nursing a 1-0 lead and rueing Morgan’s missed penalty, but rather celebrating their young star’s carry job.
That carry job got an exclamation point in the 77th minute, after chance after chance after chance went wasted by her teammates. Having moved to the center striker spot after Morgan was substituted off, Smith was able to have a bit more freedom in her movement, which is how she ended up on the right side running after a ball in the Vietnam box. Her control of the ball drew Vietnamese goalie Trần Thị Kim Thanh—who had a truly incredible game for a goalie who let three goals in—out of the goal, which made it easy for Smith to cut the ball across to Horan, who took one touch to get around a defender before blasting the third goal into the back of the net with ease:
For those keeping track, that’s a World Cup debut of two goals and one assist for Smith. She was involved not just in all three of the USWNT’s goals, but also most of the best-looking attacks. She lived up to the pre-tournament hype and then some, even against opposition that isn’t as good as some of the other teams the U.S. will face, starting with the Netherlands on Wednesday night. Still, though, you can only debut against whoever the schedule puts in front of you, and Smith was a shining star on a team that still has plenty of questions to answer as it attempts to become the first three-peat winner in World Cup history.
It might just be this simple for the USWNT going forward: Get Sophia Smith the ball, and she’ll figure out what needs to happen for the win. Judging by Friday night’s performance, what needs to happen is that she takes the shots only she wants to make, and sets up her teammates for shots they can’t miss. There are worse World Cup formulas than that.