In the weeks leading up to the Women’s World Cup, Sophia Smith admitted she wanted to be the first American player to score a goal in the tournament. Of course she did. Like any great athlete, she has long envisioned herself as a star.

Growing up in Colorado as the youngest of three girls, Smith spent years trying to keep up with her athletic sisters. She was the sibling relegated to the middle seat of the car, the one who tagged along at basketball practices, the baby longing to be noticed.

Yet even as a young teenager, Smith said, she knew she was destined for something greater. She told her parents she had the talent and drive to be a “special” soccer player. Maybe the best ever. It hardly seemed long: She was indeed not prepared to settle for anything less.

“I’m a winner,” Smith said in an interview before the World Cup. “I have to win. It makes me sick to lose anything. A card game, anything. When it comes to soccer, I just find a way.”

On Saturday in the USA’s 3-0 win over Vietnam, Smith showed – yet again – that there is something in her gut that she will be great.

In her first World Cup match, Smith scored the US team’s first goal of the tournament. Then she won its second. Later, she had the assist on its third. And even then she thought her day could be better.

“We could have scored several more goals,” Smith said. “Myself included.”

It was a remarkable debut that reinforced the view of many that Smith, 22, could leave Australia and New Zealand as the breakout star of the tournament. In a team brimming with promise — eight American players made their World Cup debuts against Vietnam — Smith once again soared high above the rest. Not that her teammates didn’t try to keep up.

At times, it seemed as if every player on the American team could have scored a goal or two, or three. Savannah DeMelo, making her first World Cup start and only her second appearance for the national team, had two big early chances. Rose Lavelle – finally back on the field after a long injury lay-off – had at least two more after coming on as a second-half substitute, including one shot that looked bound for success until it ricocheted off the crossbar.

Even Alex Morgan, the star forward in her fourth World Cup, could match Smith. Morgan missed a penalty in first-half injury time when her low shot was stopped by the Vietnam goalkeeper, Thi Kim Tranh Tran.

“You know, we can always put more away,” said Morgan, who added that she was happy with the win but not with her penalty try. “But I think the way the first World Cup game goes is not the way the last one will go.”

USA coach Vlakto Andonovski acknowledged that his team – which is trying to win an unprecedented third consecutive World Cup title – should have converted more of the two dozen chances they created, and said he would have liked to see more efficiency in those critical moments in front of goal. The U.S. team has just a few days to make those adjustments before it faces a much tougher test against the Netherlands, but Andonovski said that was enough time for his players to study what went wrong and get back to their usual scoring rhythm.

Thursday is the deadline. The Netherlands, a team that the United States beat in the 2019 World Cup finals, will certainly not allow as many chances, and it will certainly make the United States work harder on defense.

Andonovski, however, had little doubt that the United States would be ready. He said he was encouraged by how his team played against Vietnam, considering the starting 11 had never played a game together, and six of them – including Smith – had never played a World Cup match at all.

“I’m sure the nerves had something to do with it,” he said of the subpar finish. “So I’m not worried about it.”

He added that he was encouraged by the style of soccer that the team played, and satisfied with all the opportunities it created. Smith was equally optimistic. Once the team relaxes a bit and gets more touches and strings together more passes, she said, it will “calm down and feel more confident.”

She admitted, however, to feeling nervous before the game, a feeling she said she had for the first time.

That means she didn’t feel any nerves as she helped Stanford win an NCAA championship in 2019, which included her scoring a hat trick in the semifinals. Or when she entered her first professional game with the Portland Thorns, in 2020, and scored after just three minutes.

The World Cup, however, is a completely different level, even against Vietnam. Smith is at a new point in her career now, with new emotions and higher stakes. But ever since she was a child, she has been prepared.

“Whoever wins, whatever the score is, a win is a win,” she said in the days leading up to the Vietnam game. “And if it takes me scoring a lot of goals for us to win, I’ll do that.”

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