Sophia Smith signs new Thorns deal, becomes NWSL’s highest paid

United States women’s national team forward Sophia Smith has signed a new contract with the Portland Thorns that ties her to Portland through the 2025 season, with an option to extend the contract through 2026, the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) announced Wednesday.

Smith’s new deal makes her the highest-paid player annually in the NWSL, the team told ESPN. Sources later confirmed that information to ESPN.

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The record for the highest-paying cumulative contract in NWSL history was set on multiple occasions this past offseason.

Chicago Red Stars forward Mallory Swanson, Bay FC forward Racheal Kundananji, and Orlando Pride forward Barbra Banda all signed multiyear deals worth between $2 million and $2.5 million in total. Smith signed a shorter-term deal but will be paid higher annually, the Thorns said, although general manager Karina LeBlanc declined to share specific numbers.

“There is no place like Portland,” Smith said in a small roundtable interview that included ESPN. “I don’t believe there’s an environment like Portland to play in and it’s a city that’s so special to me and a city that I feel like I’ve grown up in almost and become who I am.”

Smith, 23, was the No. 1 overall pick by the Thorns in the 2020 NWSL draft after leaving Stanford University following an NCAA championship as a sophomore. She has scored 34 regular-season goals since then and become the youngest player in league history to win MVP (in 2022) and the Golden Boot (in 2023). She re-signed with the Thorns in March 2022 and led them to their third NWSL Championship later that year.

Smith was set to become a free agent at the end of this season and “thought of all the options,” she said.

LeBlanc said she fielded questions about Smith’s status everywhere she went in Portland, from fans at the grocery store to her dentist. Re-signing Smith, however, required a larger domino to fall in Portland first.

Until recently, the Thorns had performed well, on and off the field, since the NWSL’s inception in 2013. The past two-plus years, however, were riddled with turmoil in Portland, which was at the epicenter of the NWSL’s recent reckoning with abuse. Former Thorns controlling owner Merritt Paulson, under increasing fan pressure in 2022, eventually agreed to sell the team after multiple investigations detailed how he and Thorns management mishandled prior player complaints and enabled alleged abuser Paul Riley to continue working in the league.

Led by new controlling owner Lisa Bhathal Merage, the Bhathal family — which invests in the NBA’s Sacramento Kings — purchased the Thorns for a then-NWSL record $63 million in January, ending two years of uncertainty in Portland. The nature of conversations with Smith quickly changed.

“New owners changes everything,” Smith told ESPN. “Since I’ve been here there has been a lot of things going on with this club — a lot of not-great things going on with this club — and I have just been waiting for some stability and some reassurance that this club is headed in the right direction, and the Bhathal family coming in is doing exactly that, if not more.

“Their vision for this club is so exciting, and you can just tell how passionate they are about making this what it should be and continuing to push the standard in women’s soccer globally and making the Portland Thorns the center of that in any way that they can. So, I would definitely say new owners coming in and having that sense of stability and forward-thinking mindset is something that definitely played a big role in why I want to stay here.”

Smith has become a fixture for the USWNT since first training with the senior squad as a 16-year-old in 2017. She has scored 16 goals in 44 appearances for the U.S. and was a starter for the team at the 2023 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.

“Soph has the ability to be the best in the world,” LeBlanc said. “She’s hungry to do a lot of things. You look at her, she’s young. For what she’s accomplished, you’d think she’s [in her] late 20s, but she has the ability to — and I think this is where the hunger comes in — study the game and learn the little nuances. Her pace puts her above everyone. Her speed [with] the ball at her feet is exceptional. She can run fast but she can dribble with the ball at her feet just as quickly.”

LeBlanc said re-signing Smith was “one of the first things [she] talked about” with the Bhathals. As one of the best players in the NWSL, Smith would have had plenty of options both domestically and abroad if she had let her previous contract expire. Transfer spending in the most recent window increased 165% year-over-year, per FIFA, and many experts expect spending to rise again this summer.

Smith re-signing in Portland is another boost to the NWSL’s claim as the best league in the world, especially after the NWSL came under renewed criticism following the USWNT’s historic elimination at the round-of-16 stage of the 2023 World Cup.

“I just feel like I’m not finished here yet, and I want to do more with this club,” Smith said. “I don’t believe that every player needs to go to Europe to become who they’re supposed to be; I don’t believe that narrative. I think the conversation is Europe vs. the NWSL: What league is better? And I really truly believe that they are so different, you can’t even compare them, and it’s just where the right fit is for that person at that time.

“I think they’re both unique challenges in their own ways. I think Europe would challenge me in a different way than [how] the NWSL challenges me, but I think this league is so good for me, and it’s the exact type of style that I feel like I like to play and thrive in. I just feel like I still have so much to learn in this league and in with this club specifically, and I don’t want to move on from that yet.”

Smith said she is happy that NWSL players have achieved free agency in their first collective bargaining agreement with the league, and that she will “get there at some point, but I’m happy with my decision right now.”

Smith’s 2024 campaign is off to a strong start despite Portland losing its first two games of the season. She scored a brace in the Thorns’ season-opening 5-4 loss to the Kansas City Current earlier this month. On Sunday, in a 1-0 loss to NJ/NY Gotham FC, Smith twice appeared to score the league’s 3,000th goal only to have each play called back by VAR.

Smith was fouled six times in Sunday’s game — four of which produced yellow cards against Gotham FC players — and is the target of physical play by defenses across the NWSL, but her production has hardly dropped off. She followed up her MVP and NWSL Championship-winning season by increasing her goals and assists-per-90 minutes in about 300 fewer minutes and finishing as the league’s top scorer.

“She came onto the scene and people just didn’t know how to defend her,” Thorns and USWNT teammate Becky Sauerbrunn said about Smith on Sunday. “Then, people are like, ‘OK, now we need to body her up and put numbers around her.’ So, she’s adapting, and what I’m seeing is just her evolving her game. She’s always going to be so great 1-v-1, but I think what we saw [Sunday] is how special she is even back to goal, and fighting off and riding these challenges, when to lay it off, when to take it herself. She’s just growing.”

The next evolution of Smith’s game will come in her leadership, she said — not through rah-rah pregame speeches or by wearing the captain’s armband, she clarified, but by leading by example. Her superlative play commands a spotlight that she’d rather not have. LeBlanc described Smith as a “humble” superstar who perfectly aligns with Portland’s values.

Now, Smith said she is ready to become a more complete player for club and country.

“I don’t believe anyone is perfect or any player has hit their full potential ever, so I think for me, I want to grow into more of a leadership role on this team,” Smith said. “I want to be a player that kind of brings everyone around me into games. I think that a big thing for me is being less individual and bringing my teammates into games, whatever that looks like.”