This story first appeared in Extra Time, our pop-up newsletter about the 2023 Women’s World Cup. Get it in your inbox by subscribing here.
A bulbous debut
My old hoops coach, the late Hall of Famer Pete Carril, used to call them “light bulbs.” They were the players who’d walk onto the court in practice and make him light up, even if he were tired and cranky. “Light bulbs,” he said. “There’s an intangible feeling that you can delight in.” (Note: I was not a light bulb.)
While watching 22-year-old Sophia Smith score two goals—and assist on a third— during the U.S. Women’s National Team’s 3-0 shutout of Vietnam Friday night in its World Cup opener, and in recalling my first in-person interaction with her a few weeks ago, I started thinking about light bulbs.
(You can read our report on the game here.)
First, there’s Smith’s play on the pitch. She talks about her ability to block out the distractions around her—especially the defense—as she barrels toward a score. That was on full display on Friday night. On her first goal, she took a neat flick from Alex Morgan, calmly used her dribble to create separation from her defender, and fired a left-footer through the wickets of Vietnam keeper Thi Kim Thanh Tran.
That was sweet. But her finest moment came, arguably, on her assist to Lindsey Horan in the 77th minute. Smith used her speed to race past two defenders on the right side of the field and chase down a Julie Ertz pass. As she angled toward the net, Tran left her line to stop her. But right as Tran slid for a tackle, Smith crossed the ball to Horan, some 12 yards from the goal in the middle of the box. The pass was timed perfectly: Tran was now out of the play, leaving the Vietnam net defenseless. Horan finished it off, and the U.S. took its 3-0 lead.
While Smith’s sensational debut made her a conversation starter back home in the U.S., full-time soccer fans weren’t at all surprised. Smith, after all, is the reigning National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) MVP; she was the youngest player to ever win the honor. The Portland Thorns star leads the NWSL in goals scored this season, with 10.
At the USWNT media day in Los Angeles in late June, I was working the generational-divide angle. What stuff about the older players mystified the younger ones, and vice versa? Players weren’t being generous with specific examples, either because they were hard to recall in the moment, or they were worried about offending their colleagues. (I suspect it was a combination of both.)
Smith, however, leaned back in her chair, smiled, and dug in. The older players, she said, essentially drone on about stuff she’s not that interested in, like CD players and grainy movies and songs that sound like the stuff her parents listen to. Tupac, for example, might have been big at one time, but she’s not that into him. There were once search engines other than Google? Wow.
The reporters cracked up. She was confident enough to needle the thirtysomethings, and did dry humor well.
Smith grew up in Fort Collins, Colo. Her dad Kenny, a college basketball player at Wyoming who presented her with the Player of the Match trophy on Friday, has said he knew she would be a soccer star from the age of 6, when she dominated her 3-on-3 league. She went to Stanford, won the 2019 national title with USWNT teammate Naomi Girma, and left early for the pros; Portland selected her No. 1 in the 2020 NWSL draft.
Smith has a New Zealand connection. Her boyfriend, 2023 NFL draft pick Michael Wilson—whom she met at Stanford—is half Kiwi. His mom’s side of the family is from Wellington, site of the Smith’s next game, against the 2019 World Cup runner-up, Netherlands, on Wednesday night.
Her big debut, Smith said afterward, “just makes me more excited for the next game.” I highly doubt we’ve heard the last of Smith at this World Cup.
Before the World Cup, New Zealand forward Hannah Wilkinson was commissioned to paint a mural on the walls of Eden Park, the Auckland stadium hosting World Cup matches. Then on opening night of the World Cup, on Thursday, Wilkinson took her artwork inside, as she scored the first goal of the tournament: Wilkinson one-timed a cross from Jacqui Hand into the net to give New Zealand a 1-0 lead over Norway, a title contender.
New Zealand entered the game 9.5-to-1 long shots to prevail in the opener. The Football Ferns would hold that 1-nil advantage, clinching New Zealand’s first-ever win at a World Cup, in front of the largest ever soccer crowd in the nation’s history; 42,137 fans filled Eden Park.
So who is the woman who’ll never have to buy a drink in New Zealand again? For one, she’s an impressive artist. Besides her World Cup mural, Wilkinson’s anime-inspired portraits of surfers, skateboarders, soccer players, and other athletes were on display in Tokyo’s Mitsukoshimae metro station during the 2021 Olympics. “My art has really saved me in a lot of ways,” Wilkinson told Olympics.com. Especially while she recovered from a 2018 ACL tear, the second of her career (one on each knee). “It saved me from going insane because it is a very tedious experience. I really pushed my body to my limits to make [the 2019] World Cup, and it was the most difficult period physically and mentally, I think.”
Wilkinson, who started to draw while growing up and also plays guitar, has an American tie: she played college soccer for the University of Tennessee. She scored 33 goals on Rocky Top, second-most in the school’s history. Knoxville hasn’t been shy about claiming her: WBIR, a TV station in Knoxville, called her a “Lady-Vol-For-Life” this week.
Seems Wilkinson would agree. “That was the best decision I ever made,” Wilkinson told the “Soccer Girl Problems” podcast in 2021, referring to her decision to play at Tennessee. “I was in great shape.”
Wilkinson and the Football Ferns will seek to keep their underdog story going on Tuesday, July 25, against the Philippines in Wellington, at 1:30 a.m. ET.
The Spain campaign
Spain trounced Costa Rica 3-0, in its World Cup opener on Friday, a statement victory for a talented team facing uncertainty entering this World Cup. Last year, 15 players threatened to quit if coach Jorge Vilda wasn’t fired. The Spanish federation refused to capitulate, and only three of those national-team players are on this World Cup team.
Spain, however, has a deep talent pool. La Roja controlled possession of the ball for 80% of the game and took 46 total shots (12 on goal) compared to Costa Rica’s one.
One serious concern for Spain, however, is the status of Alexia Putellas, the back-to-back winner of the Ballon d’Or as the world’s best player. Putellas has not played a full game since coming back from a knee injury in April; she did not start against Costa Rica, instead making a cameo late in the second half. Vilda said he limited Putellas’ minutes on the advice of medical staff.
(Putellas is not the only international superstar hampered at this World Cup. Australia’s Sam Kerr did not play in the Matildas’ opener because of a calf injury, and will miss at least one other game; the co-host Matildas did survive their opener without Kerr, beating Ireland 1-0.)
“I think we don’t have to look backwards, we need to look ahead,” Vilda said after the match, when asked if the absence of the dozen national-team players was still causing tension. “Our present was the match that we played today, and I think we were very satisfied with that.” Up next for La Roja: Zambia, at 3:30 a.m. E.T. on Wednesday, July 26 in Auckland.
The ad from French communications company Orange has gone viral for its twist on the tired complaint that the women’s game isn’t as athletic or spectacular as the men’s. Not to be totally outdone, Nike has put forward some impressive marketing. A few favorites:
Brazil’s Debinha dribbling a grocery-store item has attracted 13.1 million views across Instagram, according to analytics firm Zoomph.
In this bonkers spot, a villainous coach urges an entire stadium to stop Norway’s Ada Hegerberg from scoring a goal (8.1 million views). In real life, New Zealand stunted Hegerberg just fine in its 1-0 victory; Norway is now under pressure to salvage its World Cup chances on Tuesday, July 25, at 4 a.m. E.T., vs Switzerland, who beat the Philippines 2-0 on Friday in Group A play.
And you must see Sophia Smith as a psychological-thriller antagonist (5.7 million views).
What Women’s Soccer Means to Queer Fans (TIME)
Alex Morgan Is Back in Top Form. She Credits Motherhood. (TIME)
The Best Photos Of The Women’s World Cup (CNN)
Brazil’s Marta Scored More World Cup Goals Than Any Woman or Man. Now She Hopes to Win (NPR)
Haiti at the Women’s World Cup: A Story of Horror, Hardship … and Hope. (The Athletic)
Extra Time isn’t a hoops newsletter. (It ain’t called Overtime.) So please forgive me for harkening back to my old basketball days again on Friday night when I saw Trinity Rodman get fouled in the box by a Vietnam player, but Alex Morgan take—and miss—the penalty shot. I sort of felt for Rodman. She did all the work to earn the foul, taking the hit and falling to the ground. In fact, Rodman also went down in the opening minute, when a Vietnam player tackled her. She went to the sideline for treatment before returning. She probably would have relished the opportunity to notch her first World Cup goal. She looked ready to take that penalty, and I don’t doubt for a moment that she would have made it, if for no other reason than to answer Vietnam’s physicality with her feet.
If someone else took the free throws after a basketball player made a sweet move to draw a foul, that would be a total bummer.
I get it. No active U.S. player has scored more goals than Morgan. Soccer coaches use the rules to their advantage: if U.S. coach Vlatko Andonovski wants his most experienced scorer taking that shot, fine.
But soccer heads, help me out: are there coaches out there, at any level, who believe the player who drew the foul should score the goal? Or am I being totally naive?
Do hit me up with your thoughts about this as well as story ideas, suggestions, complaints, contempt, pub spots to watch games, praise (half- or wholehearted), questions, or anything else, at email@example.com. Or tweet at me at @seanmgregory. Now that the games have begun, I’d really love to hear from you.
On to the Netherlands.
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