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Confidence key as Smith finds her game in Portugal

Australia Canada Katrina Gorry Olivia Smith - Getty Images

When 19-year-old Canadian international Olivia Smith decided last year to make the jump to professional soccer, it was a choice she wrestled with. She had one season of NCAA soccer with Penn State under her belt, but things hadn’t exactly gone to plan. She had always dreamed of going pro, but was it the right time to make the leap?

Now, roughly six months into her first season with Sporting CP in Portugal’s Liga BPI, Smith is finding her groove – even if her on-field Portuguese is limited to a handful of words.

“Calma, baliza, which is goal, and then pass or shoot, it's still the same in English and Portuguese basically,” she smiled.

In 18 games across all competitions, Smith, a winger and midfielder, has recorded eight goals and seven assists. That includes a golazo from just a few weeks ago, when she sent a screamer into the top corner off a set piece – a goal that made ESPN’s Top 10 plays that day.

“Goal of my career. That's going to be hard to top unless I hit a crazy bicycle kick or something,” she told TSN. “In the moment I thought, ‘Okay, it's just a goal, not bad.’ But seeing it over again, I was like, ‘Damn!’”

Her recent success comes after a milestone year with the Canadian national team. The native of Whitby, Ont., was a surprise addition to last summer’s World Cup roster after first being brought in as a training player. She has now been called into every subsequent senior team camp, although illness and injury have impacted her time on the pitch.

Canada’s head coach, Bev Priestman, has noticed an improvement since Smith joined the professional ranks.

“[It’s] the best I've seen Olivia,” Priestman told TSN. “I think her in a professional environment, where she's working hard every day, is going to get the best out of her. There's no doubt she's got talent… I think she needs that flow, that game time, that fitness, and I think she's getting that now.”

For Smith, the change boils down to one detail: an increase in confidence.

“I feel like in the previous years, I was still a little bit timid to express myself on the field,” she said. “But in the last camps, I feel like I've been able to play quicker up to their speed and have them depend on me going 1v1 and doing my job defensively, which is something I think I've struggled with in the past.”

And expressing herself is exactly what Priestman wants to see from the teenager.

“I think when she's confident, [she’ll] try the top corner shot in a small-sided game, like the little things that actually are quite bold and brave. When she's not confident, she can blend in with the group, but she's not a blend-in type player,” Priestman said.

“She has that sort of quality that she is willing to try, but then also the real scrappiness to do anything to win the ball back, and just holding herself as one of the team.”

Even though she’s still several months shy of her 20th birthday, Smith has already endured many ups and downs in her young career.

She made headlines when she debuted with the senior team in 2019 at just 15 years old, the youngest player to ever earn her first cap with Canada.

It was Priestman’s predecessor, Kenneth Heiner-Møller, who gave Smith her historic first appearance. At the time, Smith said she was “ecstatic,” but the past few years have given her some perspective.

“Being so young, it's overwhelming. There was so much pressure,” she said.

Priestman had previously coached Smith at various youth levels. After she took over as head coach of the senior team, she invited Smith to Canada’s camp for the 2021 SheBelieves Cup, but did not name her to the final roster.

After that, Smith did not receive another call-up to the senior team until last summer’s pre-tournament camp for the World Cup.

“Sometimes it takes that, right?” Priestman said. “I think when you're naturally talented – like Olivia is, she has a bag full of talent – sometimes the setback of not making a senior team is what really drives you to go take your game to another level.”

Smith continued to excel for her country at the youth levels. Along with winning the Canadian Young Player of the Year award in 2019, she was one of Canada’s standout players at the 2022 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup, and she has recorded 24 international goals in her youth career, third-most for her country (and three behind Christine Sinclair for top spot).

When Priestman brought Smith back into the fold for the senior team at the World Cup pre-tournament camp, the coach said the winger was the fittest Priestman had seen her. But it’s not just the physical change that the time away from the national team offered Smith.

“I think I've changed in many ways, primarily maturity wise,” she said. “I think that helped me grow mentally… finding my own path to make it back to where I am now.”

That path included trying to find her footing at club level. Smith joined Penn State for her freshman season in 2022 but got off to a rough start after she injured her MCL in that summer’s U-20 World Cup.

She didn’t make her collegiate debut until just over four weeks into the season and found herself struggling to get playing time.

“I just felt like I wasn't really fitting into the system like I wanted to, and I wasn't able to display my own personality on the field and express my technical ability,” Smith said.

She ended what would be her lone NCAA season with one goal and one assist in 16 games. She reached a point where she wanted a different experience.

Before she had committed to Penn State, she had contemplated turning pro, but wondered if the time was right. After her tumultuous collegiate season, she felt ready to take on the challenge, although doubts remained.

“It was scary, being in the dark, not knowing what's going to happen next, what life will be like in a new country,” she said.

Smith ultimately landed on the Portuguese league as a good fit for her game.

“With my NCAA season, I think the biggest takeaway for me is that the playing style is so different. I feel like in the U.S., it's a lot of physicality and fitness,” she said. “Here [in Portugal], it's all technical, IQ, and things like that, which I enjoy a lot. And I think that's where I don't feel like I excelled too well in the in the U.S.”

While Smith is now seeing regular minutes with her club in Lisbon, it was a steep learning curve in her jump to the pro game. She struggled to see the pitch in her first several months with the team.

It was another mental hurdle for Smith to overcome, but she credits her family for their support.

“I think that was the thing that really got me through it, being able to talk to my parents,” she said. “Being in a different country, it's hard to find those resources because everything is so new.”

Smith approached her coaches to look into extra training sessions and help build her confidence. She said there wasn’t a singular “Eureka” moment where things suddenly clicked, but a slow build over time.

“I finally felt like, ‘Okay, I'm 100 per cent confident in my ability now,’” she said. “I definitely think I belong here. I think I can be one of the best players here in the league.”

Smith hopes to carry this confidence to her international career. She earned her first senior World Cup minutes last summer when she entered the group stage finale against Australia in the 77th minute.

“It was everything,” she said about playing in a World Cup. “I think it's very important to get an experience like that on one of the biggest stages in the world as a young athlete.”

Smith is once again with the national team for the CONCACAF W Gold Cup, a 12-team international tournament. The Canadians, in Group C, open their tournament Thursday against El Salvador. They next play Paraguay on Sunday before finishing the group stage against Costa Rica on Feb. 28. The top two teams in each group, along with the two best third-place teams, advance to the knockout round.

While her immediate focus is helping Canada make a statement at the Gold Cup, Smith is also turning her attention to this summer’s Olympics, where she says cracking the Canadian 18-player roster is her “biggest goal” for the year. She knows it will be a challenge with limited roster spots, but nonetheless believes she can build on her World Cup experience.

“Now, I can actually be myself and… prove to them that I have grown in these qualities and that I deserve to be there,” she said.