The Portland Thorns and USWNT star sat down with Boardroom to reflect on a year filled with ups and downs, discuss the future of women’s sports, and much more.
Sophia Smith speaks with the wisdom of someone much older than her 23 years. As we chatted less than a week after the official end of the 2023 NWSL season, the Portland Thorns and US women’s national team standout gave off an air of acceptance.
“I learned a lot from this year and got a lot out of it despite maybe the results not ending exactly how we could have wanted it to. I feel like I’m in a good place,” Smith told Boardroom. “Mentally, physically, psychologically in a good place … [where] I can reflect on the year and take everything from it that I want to take, but also move on from it.
“My biggest lesson this year is just to trust the process.”
At this time last year, Smith and her teammate reveled in their NWSL Championship victory. Ally Bank provided players with the opportunity to fly their families to the championship match in Washington, DC, and Smith was among the players who were able to hoist the trophy with her biggest fans on the sidelines, resulting in a core memory for all.
“For them to just be a part of it and be there in person and witness all the emotions firsthand means the world to me,” Smith recalled. “And I know it’s something that they’ll never forget either.“
The company’s commitment — which they re-upped for the 2023 championship — is just one example of how Smith envisions a future of women’s sports where the investment matches the quality of the competition.
Now, as the USWNT star takes a minute between her club and country commitments, she chatted with Boardroom about the year in review, the evolution of the NWSL, and the sure bet of women’s sports.
Bernadette Doykos: You’ve had a huge 2023 — from the World Cup to another playoff experience — and there have definitely been some ups and downs as the year is coming to a close. What would you say is the biggest lesson that you took away from this year?
Sophia Smith: The biggest one is probably just to trust the process. Everyone wants a career that’s just straight success after success, win after win, and the reality of it is that’s not realistic. That’s not going to happen.
There are going to be years or seasons or games, tournaments that don’t go your way, and that’s just what it is, and that’s okay. It is definitely not what we want, and it’s not what a winning team wants, but everything happens for a reason. I really believe that we did learn a lot from this year, so to just trust in that and to know that everything will work out how it’s supposed to.
BD: You’re somebody who has won a lot of things throughout the course of your soccer career. Last year, the Thorns took home the title. Can you recount for me what that experience was like?
SS: That was the best, most rewarding experience because last year, once again, it wasn’t an easy year. There was a lot of ups and downs. Our club especially went through a lot last year. So for everything to come together and to know that we just stuck it through and we trusted the process and we were rewarded for that. It was the best feeling.
I think one of the top feelings in my career for sure was winning the NWSL championship last year.
BD: How has the league changed since you entered it in 2020?
SS: My first year was very rough. So, just the change from that to now is just night and day.
But the exposure that the league is getting, the games are being watched when they’re easily accessible, and I love to see that. And I think we’ve proven time and time again that if you put the game on a big-time channel or primetime TV, people will watch it. We’ve seen that more and more throughout this season especially, and I think it’s only going to continue to grow.
The quality of teams is just elevating everywhere, and I think that makes the league more competitive and a better league overall because you watch the NWSL, any team playing any team, either one could win on any given day, and that’s a good league, that’s a competitive league, and that’s exciting and fun to watch.
Since 2020, there’s been clear evidence in the growth of the quality of the league, and definitely the investment and Ally is just one example, but is a big part of that. The company supports women’s sports and invests in women’s sports and believes in women’s sports, and where it could go, I think, is just so evident.
I hope that it just continues to grow because we have the talent, we have the players, we have the base for an amazing league, and I think we just need to continue to invest in that.
BD: The Portland Thorns are up for sale. What commitments would you like to see from whoever emerges as the new club owner to provide the best possible support for future success?
SS: I think the biggest thing is just a continued investment in women’s sports and us as a club. Portland has always been the highest standard when it comes to most things [affiliated with] women’s sports. And I think we have to continue to push that because there are other clubs who are catching up and who have the resources, who have the fans, the facilities.
What we want in new ownership is someone who’s going to come in and raise the standard even higher so that Portland remains at the top in every category possible. Whether that’s investing in a facility for us, getting a grass training field, all of those things are super important for us.
So, the overall investment in wanting to raise the standard and create a club that is the best in the world.
SS: It’s amazing. Those are two players that I grew up my whole life watching and looking up to, and their résumés are insane. I mean, they’ve won everything. And not only what they do on the field but what they do off the field. How they advocate for women’s soccer — young athletes — we wouldn’t be in the place that we are today without them. And it’s unfortunate that they have to be done when things really start getting to what they hoped it would be.
I hope that they retire knowing that they left the game a better place. The change that has happened is amazing, and a lot of it is credit to them for continuing that fight, even when maybe it seemed pointless or hopeless, but they were always fighting for that and fighting for younger generations.
BD: Do you have any send-off remarks for them as they sort of embark on this next chapter?
SS: I would just say thank you to both of them for fighting for us and for believing in the sport and where it could go. We wouldn’t be where we are without them, and they’ve contributed so much on and off the field and the game will definitely not be the same without them, but it’s in a really good place thanks to them.
BD: The US women’s national team just announced its new coach, Emma Hayes. What are your initial reactions to that selection?
SS: I’m really excited about Emma. I think she has the resume. It speaks for itself. She seems like she’s going to be a really good fit for us.
We have a team full of a lot of different players, a lot of different people. We have veteran players who have been around and done it all, but we also have young players who are waiting to get their cap. And you have kind of that in-between group. We have a lot of talent, and I think that she’s the right person to come in and put it all together.
I think that’s what we’ve been missing.
There’s no shortage of talent for sure, but it’s how you put that all together and how you make that work. And I think there is no better person than her to come in and put it all together, so I’m really excited about it.
BD: Coach Hayes was given a historic contract, making her the highest-paid women’s coach in the world. What does that signal to you as a player on a team that’s been part of this quest toward pay equity?
SS: I mean, it tells me that people are invested, and they’re willing to pay to get the best of the best to coach us, to make us continue to be the best of the best. As players, it shows that US Soccer believes in us and they want the best for us.
It’s exciting to see a female coach getting paid like this. It’s not because she’s a female or whatever; it’s because she’s good at her job. She’s the best at her job. It’s cool to see someone being rewarded for that in a way that they should be.
BD: Are there any particular athletes in any sport who you look to as models who excel and use their platforms in different ways?
SS: Oh, yeah! Alex [Morgan] is someone that comes to mind. I think Alex does a lot of really great things off the field. She obviously has a huge name, a huge brand that comes with that, and I think she’s using that in a really positive way, whether that’s giving back to her community in San Diego, helping young girls have more accessibility to playing soccer, whatever that looks like. I think she does a really great job of that.
There are so many athletes. Serena Williams — she’s just an athlete that I always have looked up to. She’s the best at what she does, and she does it in a way that is so her, and I love that.
You could list so many athletes who are using their platforms for good reasons, and I hope just to be one of them.
BD: What are you hoping to do a little bit more of in 2024 — either on or off the pitch?
SS: I’m always just trying to be a better player, be a better person, whatever that looks like in whatever season of life I’m going through. I just want to continue to be myself, but grow and get better and learn and always be open to the idea that there’s always somewhere to go. To me, that’s a really exciting thought on and off the field.
Off the field, there are a lot of things I’m passionate about and a lot of things that I want to be involved in and advocate for and use my platform for. … I think I’ve gotten the first few years of being a pro out of my system, and I feel like I’m in a good place to start that next challenge of my life.
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