The United States Women’s National Team’s disappointing performance at the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup showed the changing landscape of international soccer. The Women’s Ballon d’Or nominees shortlist, which was recently released by France Football magazine, is further evidence of the USWNT and American women’s soccer waning in power.
Just one American player was included on the Women’s Ballon d’Or nominees shortlist. The American player nominated for the award is 23-year-old Portland Thorns forward Sophia Smith. Smith was the bright spot for the USWNT at the Women’s World Cup, scoring twice and assisting a goal in the opening match of the tournament, a 3-0 win over Vietnam.
The former Stanford Cardinal player is up for the most prestigious award in women’s world soccer. Only one American player lifted the women’s Ballon d’Or previously. Megan Rapinoe won the trophy in 2019 ahead of England’s Lucy Bronze and USWNT teammate Alex Morgan. Arguments can be made that Rapinoe’s win was just as much about her political stance and outspokenness as it was about her performances on the pitch, however.
Since Rapinoe’s win, no American women’s soccer player has finished in the award’s top three in votes. It doesn’t take much to see that American women’s soccer has become insular, with most players playing in the National Women’s Soccer League rather than trying their hands in more highly-rated European leagues.
Just one player on the USWNT’s roster for the 2023 Women’s World Cup played club soccer in Europe. Lindsey Horan, who, like Smith, can claim to have had a good World Cup, plays in France for Lyon, one of the premier teams in women’s soccer.
Some soccer fans may not be familiar with the Women’s Ballon d’Or, also known as the Ballon d’Or Féminin. So, what is it?
The award is given out by France Football magazine to recognize the top women’s soccer player in the world. The men’s version of the Ballon d’Or has been presented to the best male player since 1956. The women’s trophy only started in 2018. The competition is determined by Journalists from FIFA’s top 100-ranked member nations. Each journalist places a vote on the player they believe should win the award. The player with the most Ballon d’Or Féminin points wins.
Previous Ballon d’Or Féminin winners:
|No award due to COVID-19||2020|
This season’s favorite to lift the Ballon d’Or is Barcelona and Spanish international Aitana Bonmatí. Not only did Bonmatí help Spain win the Women’s World Cup, but she was named player of the tournament, winning the FIFA Women’s World Cup Golden Ball.
The 2023 World Cup victory and Golden Ball trophy came just months after Bonmatí helped Barcelona win the UEFA Champions League in one of the best women’s finals ever. Barcelona also won the Primera Division for a fourth consecutive season, with Bonmatí playing a major part in midfield, scoring nine goals and assisting 10 goals in 23 appearances.
Bonmatí’s accomplishments are impressive, but this is the competition that Smith is up against. While Smith’s stat line from the NWSL is impressive, it doesn’t compare to that of Bonmatí.
Smith’s Portland Thorns won the NWSL Championship in 2022. She was named league Most Valuable Player thanks to 14 goals en route to the title. This season, Smith picked up right where she left off in 2022 and currently leads the league in goals with 11.
Smith’s rookie campaign with the Thorns saw her score seven goals in 21 appearances. A season later, Smith doubled her scoring in 18 matches. She has just four matches left in the season to add to her current 11-goal tally. Unfortunately, a knee injury currently has Smith on the sidelines, and she is unlikely to play a significant number of minutes down the stretch.
There is no doubt that Smith, now in her third season with the Thorns, is one of the best players in the NWSL. But until she goes abroad and tests herself against the best female players elsewhere, there is no telling just how good of a player she is.
Indeed, Smith scored twice at the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup. Yet, both goals came against Vietnam, a team the USWNT was expected to score far more goals against. Smith went missing for the most part in the next three games, accumulating a total of 360 minutes in the tournament.
Had Smith helped the USWNT win the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup, then perhaps she would have a stronger case for the Ballon d’Or. Bonmatí’s accomplishments in 2022-23 make her a shoo-in to win the award.
The last two Ballon d’Or trophies went to another Barcelona and Spain player, Alexia Putellas. Putellas is not in the running for this year’s award due to missing much of the past season following an ACL injury.
Smith could miss the remainder of the NWSL regular season for the Thorns. The striker sprained her MCL against the Washington Spirit on August 27, playing just 44 minutes of the match. Reports following the injury stated she was “week-to-week,” which is code for “we don’t know when the injury will heal.” In recent years, knee injuries for female soccer players have been an epidemic.
Smith has the potential to be the next star striker for the USWNT. She is already one of the best players in the NWSL, but moving to a league in Europe may be the best option for Smith to progress her career. The NWSL has allowed players to remain stateside and earn a decent wage playing soccer. Unfortunately, the comfort of earning a living and staying near home creates complacency in some players.
Being nominated for the Ballon d’Or Féminin is an incredible honor for Smith. She isn’t likely to win the award, however, thanks to Bonmatí’s last 12 months of soccer. Smith is coming into her prime years of soccer. Barring her current knee injury getting worse, next year could be even better for her.