Sophia Smith and Jaelin Howell met in kindergarten, where their relationship started with a squabble over who was sleeping on whose carpet square at nap time.
The versions of the story vary between Howell and Smith, who are teammates on the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team, disputing who stole whose spot on the floor.
“We tell this story different and we think it’s funny,” Howell said.
That rivalry over a suitable napping place dissolved when the two ended up on the same youth soccer team — the Tinmath Twisters. Smith and Howell grew up playing together at Real Colorado — an elite club team based in Centennial — and were invited to play for U.S. soccer when they were just 13 and 14 years old, respectively. Today, they are teammates on the U.S. National Women’s Soccer Team and will be on the roster Saturday when the team plays a friendly match against Colombia at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park.
The duo are two of four women from Colorado on the national team — an impressive number for a state the size of Colorado. It’s even rarer to have two women who’ve played together since they were little girls make it to such a big stage.
“It’s been awesome. You don’t hear about something like that happening very often, if ever,” Smith said. “It’s definitely a cool story. And it’s cool to go through this process together because it’s a unique process and it’s hard.”
Smith, 21, already has been named to the roster for next month’s World Cup and Olympic qualifying tournament in Mexico. Golden’s Lindsey Horan, 28, and Mallory Pugh of Highlands Ranch also have earned spots in the lineup. Howell, however, has not been tabbed to play in the upcoming tournament in Mexico but was invited to train and play this month’s warmup matches with the team.
The U.S. women’s coach Vlatko Andonovski sees Howell, 22, as part of the team’s bright future. And if players ahead of Howell are lost to injury, she could work her way onto the roster.
Smith and Howell honed their soccer skills on youth teams in northern Colorado. They signed on with Real Colorado when their parents recognized their immense potential. There, they shared a dream to one day be a part of the national team where they would play for World Cup trophies and Olympic gold medals.
Lorne Donaldson, their coach at Real Colorado, smiles when he thinks of his star players. Pugh, 24, also played for Real Colorado.
“As a club, we are very, very, very proud of them,” he said. “Words cannot describe it. ”
Smith is a relentless player with big ambitions to be the best, Donaldson said.
“I always tell her if she plays against her mom she would still try to score 10 goals,” he said.
Smith still bristles over a game where Donaldson benched her after she scored seven goals in the first half. He thought it was bad sportsmanship to leave her in and worried about her getting injured, especially if the other team got upset over her prolific scoring.
“She said, ‘They can’t catch me to hurt me,’” Donaldson said.
Howell is known as a tough defender who also finds ways to score, Donaldson said. He was watching in April when Howell scored her first goal in an international game against Uzbekistan. Pugh had fired off a corner kick and the ball bounced between players until Howell booted it into the goal.
“Jaelin finished it, as they would say,” Donaldson said. “She’s not a scorer. She would say it, too.”
Neither Smith or Howell played on their high school soccer teams past their freshman year, choosing instead to focus on their club team to get attention from colleges and national team coaches. The two first were invited to the USA U-14 training camp when they were teens. Since then, they’ve been invited back to various national team training camps and tournaments. When Howell was 17 and Smith was 16, they were called up to train with the national team.
“All of our firsts have always been together,” Howell said.
How it started: How it’s going: pic.twitter.com/t2AZGIiJJV
— U.S. Soccer WNT (@USWNT) December 1, 2020
The two remember how amazed they were to be playing with their childhood heroes — Carly Lloyd and Alex Morgan. They laugh about sitting around the lunch table talking about prom while those long-time stars discussed buying homes and getting married.
They never played on opposite teams until they went to college.
After high school, Smith went to Stanford and played two years before leaving college to turn pro. In 2020, she was the No. 1 overall draft pick in the National Women’s Soccer League. She now plays forward for the Portland Thorns FC.
Howell played four years at Florida State and twice won the Hermann Trophy, which is considered the Heisman Trophy for college women’s soccer. She was chosen second overall in the 2022 draft as a midfielder by Racing Louisville FC.
On Saturday, they’ll be on the field together again, wearing red, white and blue, and cheering each other on.
“I’ve always said having Soph helped my career so much,” Howell said. “We were going through the same things at the same time.”