Advertisement

Sophia Smith banishes World Cup demons with clutch USWNT goal: 'A relief of a lot of emotions'

The last time Sophia Smith sobbed in a U.S. national team jersey, she was inconsolable, "heartbroken."

It was Aug. 6, 2023, and for months thereafter, memories of Melbourne would sicken her.

She'd skied a penalty on the grandest stage of her career, at the Women's World Cup, in a Round of 16 shootout. She collapsed into teammates' arms in the ugly, tear-stained aftermath. She still remembers all those tangled, incomprehensible emotions; the searing spotlights, the noise, the agony; ever since, she's "been trying to work my way back."

"To miss a PK in a World Cup takes a toll on you mentally," Smith said Wednesday night.

Which is why she fell to her knees, and later sobbed again, after scoring a goal that hopefully expunged some World Cup remnants from her psyche.

In the 99th minute of a tight, wet W Gold Cup semifinal, Smith sprang onto a Rose Lavelle flick, and put the USWNT ahead of Canada. She turned and ran, but after five celebratory steps, she sunk toward the ground, and overjoyed teammates smothered her. A few — Lavelle, Lindsey Horan, Lynn Williams — had seen and shared Smith's raw emotion last summer. They saw the "toll" in recent months. And there, on a soaked patch of San Diego grass, they saw it relent.

Canada eventually leveled the game with a 127th-minute penalty. A shootout — the USWNT's first since Australia — loomed.

And Smith did exactly what some teammates had urged her to do in Melbourne, in the bowels of a stunned stadium.

"I just told her, the best players in the world miss PKs," Horan said after the World Cup loss to Sweden. "It sucks. Absolutely sucks. But you gotta remember, this is part of football. You get back up. And it's gonna hurt. It's gonna hurt, forever. ... Soph will get through it. She's strong. She's strong-willed. And she's one of the best players in the world right now, at her age [then 22]. She's gonna be perfectly fine."

Naomi Girma, Smith's friend and former college teammate, added: "Every single time, I'm gonna back her to be the one to take the shot, take the PK. And I hope she does too."

She backed herself on Wednesday night. She backed herself, alright. She didn't just volunteer to take a kick in the shootout. She stepped up to take the very first one.

"I was so so proud of her," Horan told CBS Sports afterward.

Smith calmly placed her penalty in the bottom corner.

And after three Alyssa Naeher saves sealed victory for the U.S., wandering the field postgame, she broke into a different type of tears.

"It's just a sign of how much it means to wear this crest, to wear that responsibility, and to make good on those responsibilities," USWNT coach Twila Kilgore said.

It was also a sign of Smith's messy past eight months.

"I felt a lot of emotions," she said postgame. "The biggest one was just relief. Because it’s been a journey since the World Cup.

She struggled with an injury in the months after returning from Australia and New Zealand. Her Portland Thorns, the reigning National Women's Soccer League champs, succumbed to Gotham in an agonizing NWSL semifinal. "Just sad," Smith said that night.

SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 06: Sophia Smith #11 of the United States celebrates scoring with teammates against Canada during extra time of the 2024 Concacaf W Gold Cup semifinals at Snapdragon Stadium on March 06, 2024 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Brad Smith/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)
Sophia Smith #11 of the United States celebrates scoring with teammates against Canada during extra time of the 2024 Concacaf W Gold Cup semifinals at Snapdragon Stadium on March 06, 2024 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Brad Smith/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images for USSF) (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/USSF via Getty Images)

She returned to the national team in October and November, and again this month, ahead of the Gold Cup. But she never quite looked like her bubbly, supremely talented, pre-World Cup self. She failed to score in the tournament's first four games, her first four competitive USWNT appearances since Melbourne. She was pulled at halftime of a 2-0 loss to Mexico, and benched for a quarterfinal against Colombia. She has not quite been the same since magazine covers and Nike campaigns pushed World Cup pressure into overdrive. "I’ve been working my way back to feeling like myself," she said Wednesday.

But she never sulked or despaired.

She vowed to learn from the entire experience.

Speaking on "The Women's Game" podcast last month, she said: "I learned a lot about myself. I learned how different types of pressures affect me, how I respond to those, what I need to listen to, what I need to let go in one ear and out the other. And just kind of how to navigate the outside world in big tournaments like that."

What she needed, desperately, was a goal this month. A moment. A release. It came, finally, on Wednesday night, in the USWNT's biggest game since their biggest failure.

It won't completely erase the Melbourne miss. "That's something I have to live with," Smith said on the podcast.

But "that goal," she said Wednesday, "was a relief of a lot of emotions."