An analysis of the 2022 NWSL MVP Sophia Smith – scout report
The NWSL season has officially come to an end. At its final, the Portland Thorns were crowned the league’s champions after downing the KC Current by a score of 2-0. The first goal of that game was scored by their prolific forward, Sophia Smith. The player helped her team secure the championship through an early goal and was crowned the game’s MVP. The award was given to her alongside her MVP award for the season.
In this tactical analysis, we will look at what Smith gives to her teams on the pitch, and the versatility of the 22-year-old. This scout report will assess her strengths and weaknesses and analyze her ability to play on opposing defenders’ shoulders, her creativity, intelligence, her movements, and how her teammates benefit from her creativity. It will also be an analysis of how she fits into her team’s overall tactics.
A versatile attacker
If there is one word that one could use to define Sophia Smith, it would be ‘versatile’. Before Sophia Smith played in the NWSL final, she had to win the semi-final first. The forward’s team, the Portland Thorns, defeated the San Diego Wave by a score of 2-1 during the semifinals of the NWSL playoffs. Smith played a vital part in her team’s victory as she had five shots and 5 touches inside the penalty area. The forward was even more impressive in the final against the Kansas City Current where she had 11 touches inside the box, including the opening goal in the 4th minute.
Yazmeen Ryan spots an opening in the midfield and sends a through ball into the path of Smith. Smith then times her run well and moves off-the-shoulder of the defenders marking her and quite literally leaves one of them on the floor. She then scores her 15th goal of the season.
Smith has a natural tendency to play on the shoulder of the opposing defenders. By doing so, she opens up the space for her teammates to attack into as she consistently puts defenders in tight spots. One example of this is in the game against the OL Reign. Smith drops deep into the midfield to intercept her teammates’ pass while simultaneously drawing the defenders’ eyes towards her in the process. This thus frees up Morgan Weaver to run into space and then fire off a shot on goal.
Plays like this are the natural by-product of the forward’s versatility. The Thorns player is a veritable Swiss army knife with a wide array of skills. One of the key weapons in her arsenal is her excellent dribbling ability. As per Wyscout, Smith has completed 54.3% of her dribbles this season and she uses this ability to get herself into scoring positions and to generate chances for her teammates. The forward has also fired off a total of 98 shots for the Thorns, with 15 of them resulting in goals.
Most of Smith’s goals come from counterattacks, as Portland are a quick, transitional team who can move the ball up the pitch quickly. Smith is also an ambidextrous shooter, capable of scoring with her right or left foot. And though she does take a lot of shots, she can hardly be thought of as selfish. The forward has created 24 chances for her team and has a total of three assists this year.
Though Smith spends the majority of her time playing as a centre-forward, she also has a tendency to drift into the channels. The forward did this quite a lot last season, mainly out of necessity, as the Thorns played with a two-striker system last year. Smith was thus given the freedom to make runs into the wide areas while her striking partners tended to play more centrally.
Her runs into the channels helped Portland to keep the pitch as wide as possible when they were attacking. It also stretched the opposition and gave the Thorns passing options on the wing if they had trouble penetrating teams through the middle of the park. Smith’s ability to play in the wide spaces was crucial to the Thorns’ success in the 2021 season.
Similarly, moving to a more central role this season has benefitted Smith greatly. The move has also been beneficial to her team, as they’ve scored a total of 49 goals during the regular season, which was the most out of all the NWSL teams.
Another critical aspect of Smith’s game is her football IQ. Though the forward is young, she seems to be developing her tactical nous quite quickly. One example of this would be in the game against the Houston Dash. Smith, who was hovering at the edge of the box, pounces off a weak pass from Marisa Viggiano.
She then slides it into the path of Morgan Weaver who slots it home.
This type of play was the result of Smith’s innate ability to read plays. It is very much akin to a shark smelling blood in the water as the forward pounced on the mistake and went in for the kill. One of the ways she is able to achieve this is through spatial awareness. The forward is constantly scanning the field and taking note of her teammates’ positions on the pitch.
Another example of this comes from her playing for the US National Team. In this sequence, Smith is not only running in the channel but while doing so, she spots teammate Alex Morgan making a run into the box. The former Tottenham Hotspur and Lyon star Morgan then went on to score the sixth goal for the US during that game.
Smith’s positional sense allows her to get into good areas for playmaking both at the club and international levels. Smith is a smart player who can send in well-timed through balls that can catch others in the middle of a run and send them through empty spaces. The fact that she has averaged a 66.1% pass completion rate just corroborates this.
And while the forward is good at creating chances for her teammates, she’s also good at receiving their passes and making the most of them. Another example of this would be against the Houston Dash, where Smith makes a run into the box to receive a pass from Hina Sugita, who formerly applied her trade in Japan. She then uses one touch to flick it into the path of Olivia Moultrie. Moultrie’s shot bounces off Campbell and back into their path, where she sends it to Smith and Sophia scores Portland’s fourth goal of the game.
Smith sees open spaces and runs to fill them. The player uses her spatial awareness to help her either see open gaps or find ways to open up the opposition’s defence. One of the ways she does so is through intelligent off-the-ball movement. The forward can create space for herself through a variety of means, mainly through her fearless ability to take on opponents 1v1 or through overlapping runs with her teammates.
Sophia seems to know where to move, when to move, and – for the most part – knows when to make the right decisions. Her intelligence as a player is one of the many reasons why she’s such a great player.
When Portland Thorns coach, Rhian Wilkinson, was asked how she handles a player as talented as Sophia Smith, Wilkinson’s reply was, “With Soph, you just let her play on instinct.”
Indeed, Wilkinson has given her star forward the freedom to play more centrally. The Canadian coach made a few tactical adjustments to the Thorns that made Smith central to their project, as the team has mainly fielded a 4-2-3-1 formation this season. In this system, Smith is no longer just a cog in the machine but is now the engine that makes the entire mechanism function.
As was mentioned before, Smith was often paired in a dual-striker partnership, and while her strike partners focused on the offensive side of things, this would force Smith to play a more defensive position. Oftentimes, she had to put in a shift closing down the opposition’s defenders as a way of freeing up space for her teammates to operate. As was noted before, Smith tended to drift into the channels during that season. Here is a heat map of the forward in a game against Gotham FC, which shows Smith being active in the wide areas.
However, Smith tends to play more centrally now. This is corroborated by this heatmap for the game against the Kansas City Current in the regular season.
The fact that she’s scored seven more goals and has two more assists while having played fewer matches in 2022 would attest to this.
If Smith does have any weaknesses, it would be in terms of her aerial ability. The forward is weak at headers and tends to lose the majority of her aerial duels. The fact that she’s only won 34.1% of her aerial duels would suggest that this is an area that needs to be improved upon. She also has a tendency to take on shots herself instead of looking towards her teammates and passing to them. Smith has made a total of 103 shots this season (49.5% on target). However, as was noted before, this did not hurt the Thorns this season as they’ve scored the most goals in the NWSL. This is something that might need to be worked on in the long run as it’s something that might lead to mistakes that will cost her and her team dearly.
This aside, every Achilles has their weakness and this would be Smith’s heel. Nevertheless, one gets the sense that this is something that can be improved over time. Smith has yet to hit her ceiling and this is one area where she can evolve to become a well-rounded player.
In conclusion, this scout report has shown how Sophia Smith is not just a central striker but offers a lot more than some may first notice. Smith is this year’s NWSL MVP and has more than merited this award. The player has shown an uncanny ability to wield all the weapons in her arsenal and use them to her advantage. Whether it’s by playing on the defenders’ shoulders, operating in wide areas or having good movement, they are all different variations of her game and show the variety of options she brings to the team.
While Smith has proven herself domestically, her greatest challenge lies on the international stage. The forward was recently called up by Vlatko Andonavski to play in the USWNT’s friendlies against Germany and will be given the chance to prove herself on the national team. The forward is young though and has yet to hit her ceiling. But if there’s anyone who has the potential to reach it, the safe bet is on Sophia.