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Sophia Smith will be driving force for USWNT at 2023 Women’s World Cup

No team in Women’s World Cup history has ever won three straight titles. This achievement, however, is very much within reach for the US Women’s National Team who can pull off the three-peat should they triumph in Australia and New Zealand this summer. Given the quality on the USWNT, anything less than glory will be considered a failure.

However, amid the excitement was a hint of trepidation as the USWNT were given a send-off by a sold out crowd in San Diego on Sunday. The US might be reigning world champions, but they are a team struggling for momentum, as was highlighted by their somewhat insipid 2-0 friendly win over Wales.

In Sophia Smith, though, Vlatko Andonovski has a true difference-maker to make use of. Smith could be the driving force for the USA in Australia and New Zealand this summer. The 22-year-old has made a profound impact on the American soccer scene over the last two years and is now ready to make her mark at the World Cup.

Smith has become a NWSL superstar as a centre forward for the Portland Thorns, but Andonovski has so far used the 22-year-old on the right wing. Even so, Smith has the freedom to get into the penalty area and take aim at goal, as demonstrated by her impressive record of 12 goals in 30 USA appearances.

“She is a special player and she’s certainly developing aspects of her game that she maybe wasn’t special in – ability to pop in pockets or to recognize those pockets and then expose the defence,” explained Andonovski. “For us as coaches, we’re happy to see that because it gives us another layer or gives us an opportunity to create strategy in a way that we believe we can expose teams.”

Andonovski’s squad has been hit by a series of injuries to important players ahead of the 2023 Women’s World Cup. Most notably, Mallory Swanson was ruled out of the tournament, opening up a space in the USA’s frontline for a replacement. Trinity Rodman and Lynn Williams are both in contention to make the starting lineup.

It’s possible Smith could operate through the middle, although the friendly win over Wales saw Rodman used as a centre forward when Alex Morgan was withdrawn off the pitch. Nonetheless, Smith is the player the US will most commonly look to in front of goal when they need something in and around the penalty box.

In possession, there are concerns over the US’s inability to break down opponents that set themselves up in a low defensive block. Indeed, they struggled to create much from open play against Wales with Andy Sullivan in particular limited in what she offered on the ball from her position at the base of the midfield unit.

The return of Julie Ertz will help the US in this sense with the 31-year-old better at breaking the lines with her passing from deep. Rose Lavelle sat on the bench against Wales and there’s reason to believe her innate creativity will change the landscape for Andonovski’s team once she starts games at the World Cup.

Nonetheless, there’s a sense the USWNT will need their most talented individuals to be at their best to win a third straight Women’s World Cup. If Andonovski has failed to give his team the tactical framework needed to disorganise opponents through their use of the ball, he will require the likes of Smith and Rodman to produce.

It would be foolish to read too much into the way the US played against Wales. “Today was another stepping stone for us,” USWNT veteran Crystal Dunn said after the match. “Obviously wasn’t our tidiest game, but I think this is a great moment for us to build on what we’re working on right now.”

European teams like England, France, Germany and Spain will push the US all the way, but Andonovski still has a stronger collection of attacking talent than any other head coach in the women’s international game right now. And at the center of it, fans should expect Smith to emerge as the face during the 2023 Women’s World Cup. 

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