Interview: Sophia Smith is poised to be a World Cup soccer star. Her parents knew from age 6 she could do it

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29min 25sec
Sophia Smith
Nick Tre. Smith/AP Photo
United States forward Sophia Smith (11) reacts after scoring her second goal of the match during the first half of an international friendly soccer match against Nigeria, Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022, in Kansas City, Kan.

Sophia Smith is already well-known to soccer fans.

At just 22 years old, she’s a prolific goal scorer, the U.S. Soccer Female Player of the Year, the reigning MVP of the National Women’s Soccer League, and helped lead her team, the Portland Thorns, to the NWSL title last year. 

Now, as the World Cup begins Thursday, Smith, who grew up near Fort Collins in Windsor, Colorado, is poised for stardom among casual sports fans across the country and the world. She’s on the cover of Sports Illustrated and is expected to score many of the goals for Team USA.

In Windsor, at Smith’s childhood home, there are few signs of her high-profile career or her impending mega-stardom. A small Portland Thorns banner sits in the grass outside the front door, but otherwise, her memorabilia is upstairs in her neatly cleaned bedroom, or stored away. 

In a lighted box, she keeps her sparkly championship rings from winning at Stanford University and with the Thorns. 

A doll in Sophia’s likeness — with her signature “bubble braid” hairstyle — sits on a desk next to the bed, with a half dozen copies of the Sports Illustrated World Cup preview. A big gold trophy from a tournament in France, and an autographed ball, are there alongside a certificate naming her Colorado’s Professional Athlete of the Year. 

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Mollie and Kenny Smith, whose daughter Sophia Smith will play for the United States women’s soccer team in the World Cup competition getting underway in Australia and New Zealand, photographed in their Windsor home, where Sophia grew up, July 13, 2023.
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Mementos in Sophia Smith’s bedroom in the house where she grew up with parents Mollie and Kenny, and sisters Gabrielle and Savannah.

But Smith’s parents, Mollie and Kenny, say most of the stuff in the room and in storage is stuff that they’ve held onto, even though Sophia might have wanted to give it away.

“It’s cool, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t mean a whole lot to her,” said Kenny. “It’s just fluff.”

Instead, Sophia is focused on family — and on winning. On the field, she’s distinctive for how singularly she zeroes in on the goal. She barely seems to notice defenders around her, or if she does, it’s because she’s dribbling through their legs or right around them.

In an interview with Colorado Matters host Chandra Thomas Whitfield, the Smiths describe how Sophia got to be the player she is today and the pregame text messages that her dad wants her to see right before she takes the field.

Read the interview

This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

Chandra Thomas Whitfield: When did you each know she was going to be a special soccer player? 

Kenny Smith: It was about the age of six. She used to play on a little three v. three soccer team, and I saw in her a determination and a will, and she had some athleticism that a lot of other kids didn't have. Even at that stage in her life, she wanted to be the best player out on the field. 

Mollie Smith: The thing that stood out to me was that around that time, she would come home from soccer and she would want to work on things that she felt she didn't get right. And I thought, ‘I think this is what it takes to be different from everybody else.’

Thomas Whitfield: Where did she get the ability to not be intimidated by anyone who's older than her? 

Kenny: I would say she got that from her sisters. She has two older sisters — they are four and five years older than her. They were very competitive kids in sports as well. When Sophia would go to their games, she would actually watch quite a bit, and I think she would learn a lot of things from her sisters. And then just playing in the backyard, they would compete at everything: who could jump the highest on the trampoline, who could make the most baskets, or things like that. 

Thomas Whitfield: Was she always mature for her age?

Mollie: Yes. I think she's never thought of herself as the youngest sibling. She just wanted to fit right in with our older two, and all their friends.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Sophia Smith's USWNT and Portland Thorns pro team rings rest on her U.S. team kit shirt in Sophia Smith’s childhood home in Windsor, Colorado, July 13, 2023.

Thomas Whitfield: When Sophia was young, you drove to Metro Denver so she could play on a club team called Real Colorado. Why did it seem worth it to make that drive? 

Mollie: Up until the age of 11, she played in northern Colorado, but I think at about that time, she was the one that came to us and said she thought she wanted something more. So we went down to Real Colorado and she played with them for a weekend and decided that’s what she wanted to do.

I remember thinking to myself, ‘If we decide to go to Denver, she better not complain one time about the drive.’ And she never complained one time! There were times when we were stuck in traffic, it took us two and a half hours to get to practice. She never complained. She thanked us probably daily. She was so grateful that I probably would've done anything. 

Thomas Whitfield: Was there a point when you debated whether you wanted to lean into her dreams of playing competitive soccer professionally, versus encouraging her to have a more ‘normal’ childhood?

Mollie: No, I don't think so. Sports were always what she loved and what she lived for, so we were willing to do whatever to help her achieve that. Looking back, the driving was terrible sometimes, but the time that I got to spend with her in the car is probably one of the most special moments for me as a mom. I got all that individual time with her, which I wouldn't have gotten otherwise. 

Kenny: I think her mentality has always been that she wants to be the best at whatever she's doing, whether that be basketball or a board game among the family, or making a coffee.

Thomas Whitfield: What advice do you have for other parents who are trying to figure out whether to encourage their kids to focus on one activity? 

Kenny: I think kids ought to play everything they can, as much as they can. I think the kid will gravitate to what they enjoy the most. We were never the type of parents to push our kid to one sport or the other, and we were just going to make sure we supported them and kept them busy, as well. 

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Kenny Smith sheds a tear as he recounts how his and wife Mollie’s daughter daughter Sophia Smith feel pride in her being named to the United States women’s soccer team in the World Cup competition getting underway in Australia and New Zealand.

Thomas Whitfield: There's a picture online of Sophia when she was seven, smiling next to Abby Wambach, the great soccer player who played in four World Cups. Do you remember that day? 

Mollie: I do remember that day. I think it was a Women's National Team game that we couldn't get tickets for, but the players did a clinic before the game and I remember Sophie saying, ‘I want a picture with Abby Wambach.’ We stood in line forever! Sophie has had that picture ever since. She looked up to a lot of those players.

Thomas Whitfield: Sophia carries herself with so much confidence. Where does that come from, and how did you help build that in her? 

Kenny: We just always encouraged her to be confident, to never let anybody take her confidence or shake her confidence. ‘Confidence’ is a word we use a lot with Sophie, and before every game, I text her and that word is in the text. 

Mollie: I also think failing and picking yourself back up has given her confidence as well. Like, one time when she wasn't invited to train with the Women’s National Team, it was a pretty sad day, but the next day, she started to focus on what she needed to do to get back there. 

Kenny: She's a kid who’s not afraid to fail. She understands that that's a part of the deal. She's been able to respond in the right ways after she's had some failures.

Thomas Whitfield: What else is in the pregame texts that you send her, and what do you want to get across?

Kenny: Sometimes my text will say, ‘Go out there and play with crazy confidence.’ But I also want her to know that having fun is a big part of that. And then just, “Go be Sophs.’ Go be yourself. Play the way that you know how to play. 

Even at home games when we're there in Portland, I'll see her all day before she goes to her game. I'll see her walk out the door to the game, and I'll still shoot her a text when I know she's getting ready, just to let her know that I love her, I believe in her, and I want the best for her. 

Thomas Whitfield: This level of competition is intense both physically and mentally. Do you see the mental toll up close?

Mollie: At times you do see a little bit of the mental toll. What's kind of changed over the years, that I've noticed, is that we don't talk about soccer. When she was in high school, she would lead us to talk about it and talk about it. But now she just wants to talk about anything besides soccer. I think that's her way of mentally trying to separate her family life from her professional one.

Thomas Whitfield: Is there anything else you want to say as you head off to the World Cup in New Zealand?

Mollie: Just how proud we are of Sophie and all of our girls. We're pretty lucky parents.

Kenny: We’re very blessed that we've had not just three kids that have been successful in sports, but amazing young ladies. That's what it's about.