Portland Thorns ride the rise of Sophia Smith to an NWSL title

Oct 29, 2022; Washington, D.C., USA; Portland Thorns FC forward Sophia Smith (9) celebrates scoring a goal against the Kansas City Current in the NWSL championship game at Audi Field. Mandatory Credit: Jessica Rapfogel-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 29, 2022; Washington, D.C., USA; Portland Thorns FC forward Sophia Smith (9) celebrates scoring a goal against the Kansas City Current in the NWSL championship game at Audi Field. Mandatory Credit: Jessica Rapfogel-USA TODAY Sports

Sophia Smith has spent roughly half of the NWSL's entire existence as its prophesied future. She earned the weighty title as a talented teen, and carried it with her through high school, to college. She arrived in the pros just two short seasons ago carrying unprecedented expectations; she would, so many assumed, become a Golden Boot winner and U.S. women's national team star.

She was the future, future, future, until, in 2022, and specifically on Saturday night, she became the present.

She became, at 22 years and two months old, the league's youngest-ever MVP this week. And then she became a champion. She needed only four minutes to swing Saturday's title game in Washington, D.C., and win the Portland Thorns their third NWSL title.

Smith pounced on a Kansas City mistake, rounded AD Franch, and slid the first goal of a 2-0 triumph into an empty net.

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And she celebrated, in front of 17,624 awestruck fans, as if she's been doing this her entire life — because, well, she has.

Smith became the future long before she'd even turned 18. She tore up youth tournaments and, at 16, earned her first USWNT call. She went off to Stanford, and scored 17 sophomore-year goals. She bagged an NCAA tournament semifinal hat trick en route to a national championship.

She glided past helpless defenders in college, and conjured sorcery even against the world's best youth national teams. She wriggled in and out of tight spaces. She spanked quick-trigger shots, and showcased vision and spatial awareness well beyond her years. She left Stanford after two seasons, and became a no-brainer No. 1 overall draft pick in 2020.

She joined a Portland team with five World Cup winners and the greatest international goalscorer ever. A few of those veterans remained the cornerstones of a 2022 team that endured unfathomable heartache but possessed unbelievable depth. The Thorns regularly brought international stars off the bench. One, Crystal Dunn, won their semifinal with a 93rd-minute banger.

Smith, meanwhile, entered the year as a still-very-promising 21-year-old. She was already a national teamer, but five Thorns players had made the NWSL's 2021 Best XI first or second team, and Smith hadn't been one of them. She scored seven league goals last year. She was a piece of a superteam, but merely a piece — until, from the outset of the 2022 season, she became something far more.

She scored early and often, and especially often in June. She scored in the league and in the NWSL Challenge Cup. She scored for the national team in World Cup qualifying and against England at Wembley. She scored 28 goals in total.

She remains the future, and brighter than ever. But she arrived, definitively, as the now this year. Her presence created Portland's second goal on Saturday at Audi Field as well. Her quickness and confidence nearly created more.

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At 10:06 p.m., with her teammates spilling onto the field, she became an NWSL champion. And shortly thereafter, a championship game MVP. She was anything but a one-woman team — Sam Coffey and Becky Sauerbrunn were likewise superb. But she was, and is, what the American soccer world always thought she'd become: a superstar.