Player of the year watch: Sophia Smith next in long line of stars at spotless Stanford

Sophia Smith, right, has been a prolific scorer for the U.S. U-20 team. Now she's doing the same at Stanford. Courtesy Stanford

Sophia Smith was still in high school when No. 1 Stanford's 28-game winning streak began on Sept. 1, 2017. So even as the Cardinal freshman played an important role in extending the streak this past week with a pair of wins against traditional women's soccer powers, the mark is not entirely her doing.

Then again, Smith wasn't even alive when North Carolina piled up many of the historic winning streaks it once accumulated like frequent flyer miles. And while it isn't entirely her doing that Stanford is winning in a way heretofore seen only in Chapel Hill, her performance this past week, and her very presence in Palo Alto, speaks volumes about why the streak is possible.

Stanford is now the place to be for college soccer's rising stars.

On the strength of Friday's 3-1 win against Notre Dame and Sunday's 2-1 overtime win against No. 2 North Carolina, Stanford's winning streak is the seventh-longest in NCAA Division I history. Fittingly, given the last opponent, it is the longest by a team other than the Tar Heels.

That's how the history of women's college soccer works. There is North Carolina history, and history as experienced by everyone else. And as much of a roll as Stanford is on at the moment, overtime wins against the Tar Heels and at Minnesota a week ago make clear how unlikely it is that the Cardinal will challenge North Carolina's record 92-game winning streak. That streak is longer than the three longest non-North Carolina winning streaks combined.

This is a time when not even North Carolina can dominate the sport the way North Carolina once did. It is a time of more and more Division I programs and more and more dollars invested in soccer. Yet Stanford has a lineage like, well, a dynasty. Kelley O'Hara leaves, Christen Press takes over. Andi Sullivan moves on, Smith arrives to do things like she did Sunday.

The game was scoreless when she blew past a North Carolina defender in midfield, took two efficient touches to create space and curled a shot from distance perfectly inside the far post.

"I was at the point where I was like 'Someone needs to do something; we don't want to end this game in a tie.'" Smith said. "I almost thought about going left and trying to beat another player down the line, but I saw the little opening and I saw the far post open, so I just shot it. Tried to get it where I needed it to go, and it went in."

While the goals she scored against both opponents this past weekend were important, Smith didn't -- and didn't need to -- singlehandedly win either game. Her goal against the Fighting Irish was insurance, restoring a two-goal margin in the second half. The winner came on fellow freshman Abby Greubel's strike. Her goal against the Tar Heels gave her team the lead, but it was Catarina Macario's dazzling footwork and Madison Haley's finish that won the game.

That's just it. Stanford has a lot of players with the talent to win games on their own, which is why those players rarely have to do it all. That point was unfortunately underscored by the injury Tierna Davidson suffered against the Tar Heels. Already a starter for the United States women's national team and arguably the best all-around player in college soccer, Davidson went down under the weight of a hard tackle on her left ankle in the first half and didn't return (the extent of the injury has still not been announced with World Cup qualifying less than a month away).

Stanford still had all the talent it needed to remain unbeaten, just like the Tar Heels always did during all those consecutive wins and championships.

Smith, the 2017 U.S. Soccer Young Player of the Year, has scored 24 goals in 28 games at the U-20 level. That includes three in this summer's U-20 Women's World Cup. Her total is tied for second with Lindsey Horan and O'Hara for the most in U.S. history at that age group. She is only five goals behind Sydney Leroux for the all-time lead among U-20 players, all the more notable because Smith, who turned 18 in August, will still be eligible in the 2020 U-20 World Cup.

In a different generation, a person with that profile would surely have ended up in Chapel Hill. Heck, she even comes from a basketball family -- her father and two older sisters have played Division I in that sport. Tobacco Road would have appealed in ways beyond a pipeline to soccer success. But she is the product of an era of expanded horizons. She grew up not with posters of two-dimensional idols on her wall but watching online clips of Marta, marveling at the Brazilian's audaciousness above all others. Closer to home, she took similar inspiration from fellow Coloradan Mallory Pugh, who signed a pro contract without ever playing an official college game.

"She's kind of been the biggest inspiration for me," Smith said of Pugh. "Just the path that she's taken to get to where she is, is something that I hope to do, too."

Smith thrived at a time when a favorite player wasn't by default American and college wasn't the only path forward. But when she decided it was the path for her, she wanted the best.

"I knew I wanted to go to a big-time school that had in the past done well with women's soccer," Smith said, "Because you know that's a school you can trust and a school that's growing."

And when you're 18, the relevant past extends back about as far as the decade in which Stanford won two national championships and became the preeminent destination for talent. Make no mistake, she respects the longer history. She visited North Carolina and liked what she saw. But there was only one place that offered her as much as she offered it.

So she wore a shade of red in Sunday's clash of empires.

"That was a huge deal," Smith said. "Seeing how successful each program is, it was almost like a rivalry game. Obviously a lot of us know each other on both teams, so there's tension here and there. Even if you're friends, you always want to beat your friends."

Which helps explain why, for more than a year now, Stanford has beaten everybody.