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Hometown Hero

Mike Olson Avatar
July 28, 2023

Most kids who spend time bouncing from sport to sport eventually find one or two that just work better for them more than all the others. The one that works for their heads and their minds, that simply… clicks. For me, that was soccer. When a young life playing soccer on the West Coast brought me back to Colorado and Fort Collins in my early teens, I was lucky to jump into soccer around town just as it was taking off. My first two seasons were so scarce as to be co-ed with my hyper-talented sister. But just as I was pondering finding a different sport, a friend of my dad’s and Fort Collins local named Al Minatta told me of a local club they were starting. It was designed to pull in the best kids from around the area. They were calling it Arsenal.

I played FC Arsenal ball for four more years, and we won a lot of regional stuff in that time. But as well as I thought I could play, I never once entertained the idea that a kid from my hometown could ever play soccer on a big stage. A couple from my era got close to the national spotlight, but bounced off.

Years later, watching my eldest run circles around a lot of her peers at even that competitive level, I saw someone a hell of a lot better than I ever dreamt of being. For a hot second, I harbored a fantasy that a kid from my home town could play soccer on a larger stage. She was certainly good enough to at least land herself a college scholarship. Sadly, she fell out of love with the game right as some of those decisions were coming down the pipe. Easy to do in place where you’re in the mix with what feels like dozens, if not hundreds, of other kids. Soccer stars come from families and established programs from the coasts. Not a postcard-perfect postage stamp like FoCo.

Turns out maybe my imagination just wasn’t quite big enough. When Windsor native Sophia Smith was six, she was headed to a 3-on-3 soccer tourney with her dad. Sophia felt like she’d unlocked a few of the mysteries of the game less than 2,500 days into her life, and was itching to try them out. She told her dad, Kenny, on the ride to the game she planned on scoring 10 goals that day.

And damned if she didn’t. Kenny knew then and there Sophia had something special. His imagination and her determination and desire were appropriately sized.

The regional networks noticed her talents quickly, and The Timnath Twisters and then my old chums Arsenal picked her up along the way. With Arsenal, she won two state cups in the three years she was there.

By the time she was 14, Smith was playing for the varsity team at Fossil Ridge High School in Fort Collins, scoring 10 goals and four assists in only eight games, and earning First Team All-Conference Honors. This while also being pulled into the national soccer scene by playing club ball with Real Colorado. In her three years with Real, Sophia’s team would finish as ECNL National Championship runners up twice, and in fourth place in the one in the middle. Everywhere she went, the Smith’s teams won. She earned a call up to the senior national team, and she was only 16.

Buzz started to generate further around Smith as she joined that U-17 national squad, wins following all along the way. She took her act to California for collegiate ball, joining a solid Stanford Cardinal team. Sophia still shone brightly against the tougher competition, earning All-Pac 12 Fresman and Second Team honors in her abbreviated freshman campaign, where Stanford won the Pac-12 Championship. In her sophomore season, Smith further came into her own, with 17 goals and 9 assists in 21 games. In the NCAA College Cup that year, Smith had a hat trick in the semifinals and went on to be named the tourney’s Outstanding Offensive Player and All-Tournament Team honors in leading her squad to the title.

Phew. Believe it or not, we’re still not even close to done.

Even when USA soccer chose to leave her off the Olympics traveling squad for the 2020 trip to Japan, Smith was so rocket hot as to take her act to the pros, with the Portland Thorns making her the #1 pick of the 2020 draft. Her career has only continued to blossom the last three years there, with Sophia being named last year’s regular season MVP, then leading the Thorns to an NWSL Championship and the Championship MVP.

You wonder if USWNT coach Vlatko Andonovski now regrets leaving Sophia off that Olympic team after watching her opening game performance of the 2023 Women’s World Cup. The roar of the crowd on that first goal was loud enough, you might have heard it from 7,500 miles away in Denver. Or maybe there are enough locals watching Smith that I was just hearing my neighborhood. But it sure was pretty…

That’s how you open scoring, no? But just in case, Smith thought maybe a punctuation was in order (2:30 in the video):

The US did end up having one more goal, this time scored by Co-Captain Lindsey Horan (another Colorado native). Oh, but the assist? All Smith, if you stuck around to see until 3:51 in the video above.

Smith’s game was much quieter against the Netherlands, but she and the rest of her starting frontline mates were still keeping a lot of pressure on the Dutch goal, even without success. The USWNT will need everything Sophia has got to keep themselves at the top of their group when they play Portugal on Tuesday. And make no doubt, she surely will give them every single bit. Ms. Smith has made a habit of establishing herself at every level, even when she was just a kid in my hometown.

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