'Special' Sophia Smith leads USWNT to Shebelieves Cup

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Sophia Smith is no stranger to scoring exceptional goals, but she made a habit of finishing them against Canada.

Smith scored twice at Lower.com Field on Tuesday as the U.S. defeated Canada 5-4 in a penalty shootout to win the SheBelieves Cup for the seventh time in nine editions of the tournament.

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It was the USWNT's second penalty shootout victory over Canada in 34 days since their Gold Cup semifinal win, and Smith's individual performance was another example of the 23-year-old forward being “a special player on our team at a special moment,” USWNT interim coach Twila Kilgore said.

Smith scored an equalizer from outside the box five minutes after the break and 18 minutes later, he received a through ball from second-half substitute Trinity Rodman.

“The first goal is just class,” Kilgore said. “Sometimes individuals do special things. It was Soph's left-footed finish in a crowded box, it was an exceptional moment, but there was a great team spirit.”

Smith started the game on the right wing, a position he was often called upon to play in his blossoming USWNT career, but not his preferred No. 9 position, which he plays for the Portland Thorns. She was the National Women's Soccer League MVP and won the league title in 2022 and the Golden Boot in 2023. Portland recently rewarded Smith with the largest annual contract in NWSL history.

Smith's preferred number on Tuesday. Four minutes after switching to the 9 role, he scored his second goal. Jaydin Shaw found the ball centrally after moving into an attacking midfield role, then Shaw turned and played a vertical ball to Rodman, who found the streaking Smith behind.

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Smith acknowledged that it's good to be versatile when the Olympic roster is only 18 players deep.

“I just try to do my job when I'm told to step up,” Smith said in the stadium tunnel Tuesday with his tournament MVP trophy. “I don't think anything of it. I try to lead this team as best as I can, whether it's for PKs or putting the ball in the back of the net in a game, that's what I'm proud of and that's it. I'm trying to.”

The USWNT almost wasted Smith's efforts. Crystal Dunn conceded a penalty kick late when she fouled Canada forward Adriana Lyon, and Lyon stepped up from the spot to bury a late equalizer — just as she had 34 days earlier in the 127th minute of the Gold Cup semifinal.

Tuesday's game went straight to a shootout and played out much like the previous encounter. USWNT goalkeeper Alyssa Naher had another stunning shootout performance, saving three penalty kicks and burying one of her own to lift her team to victory.

“I think that's what we spend time on in practice,” Nahar said of the focus on shootouts. “It's part of the game. Even on the men's or women's side, the champions of the World Cup or different tournaments, statistically, had to go through at least one shootout within the tournament, so that's something we have to do. Do a lot of preparation and the more you do it, the more confident you will be [you are]. We have 23 players who can be comfortable taking a shot at any time.

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Next up for the USWNT is the long-awaited arrival of head coach Emma Hayes at the end of May. Hayes was announced as the team's next manager in November, but he stayed with Chelsea throughout the European season to complete his decade with the club.

In the interim, Kilgore has been working with Hayes on his plans ahead of his arrival. That process has been successful of late, despite a group-stage loss to Mexico in the Gold Cup. Since then, the U.S. has won or advanced five straight games, picking up two trophies in a month.

“Now we're at a tried, true, battle-tested stage,” Kilgore said. “It's five games against teams that have qualified for the Olympics. Only one more game puts you in the finals, for context.”

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