Sophia Smith and Jaelin Howell are statistical anomalies.
There are an estimated 375,000 high school girls soccer players in the United States, according to the NCAA.
At least three-quarters of those are the right age to be eligible for the U.S. U-17 Women’s National Team.
To have one from Fort Collins make the squad would be remarkable, even with the high level of soccer talent in the city.
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The fact that Smith and Howell — juniors at Fossil Ridge High School — are on the U.S. team for the U-17 Women’s World Cup in Jordan is stunning in its improbability.
“It’s been a dream of ours and we’ve both pushed each other to get here. It’s just an amazing opportunity to be here,” Howell said. “It’s just crazy that we both ended up here together.”
The U-17 team opens the biennial tournament at 10 a.m. Saturday against Paraguay in Al Zarqa, Jordan, highlighting a long journey for Smith and Howell.
The pair met when the Howell family moved to Colorado when Jaelin was in kindergarten. They’ve played together since first grade, for Arsenal Colorado, Fossil Ridge, Real Colorado and the U-17 national team.
“We didn’t really think when we were little that we would be standing here today saying we’re going to play in a youth World Cup,” Smith said. “To be able to say that is a big accomplishment, but we still want to win it and it’s a big goal of ours.”
U.S. coach B.J. Snow picks the 21-player roster from the most elite players from the country, choosing a squad that can both win the World Cup, but is also filled with players who have the potential to evolve into joining the full senior national team that fans watch on TV.
Snow has tabbed Smith and Howell as two of the brightest stars in the U.S.
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Howell, whose father John played football at Colorado State University and won a Super Bowl with Tampa Bay, is a do-everything midfielder and a regular starter and impact player on the squad.
Smith, whose sister Savannah plays basketball at Northern Colorado, is a speed-demon attacker who bounces between acting as a starter a stand-out substitute. She has two goals and a team-high four assists in 2016.
Over the last two years, the duo ranks near the top of most appearances with the U-17 team and was integral in winning the CONCACAF U-17 championship in March, with Howell named to the all-tournament team. And other than realizing they’re missing a lot of class, Howell and Smith’s classmates at Fossil Ridge have no idea what the two are up to.
What they’re doing is being groomed to be part of the future of the dominant Women’s National Team program. Most of the national team stars fans have seen in the World Cup or Olympics once played for youth U.S. teams like Smith and Howell are doing now. The youth national teams serve almost like a minor league feeder for the senior team.
This group is hoping to do something no other set of U.S. stars has done. The U.S. women have won a World Cup at every level — from the youngest youth tournaments to the marquee senior tournament — except for the U-17 edition.
Smith and Howell left in mid-September for a week of training camp in the country of Cyprus before the U.S. moved camp to Jordan where they will remain until they win the tournament or are eliminated.
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In the past two years, they’ve played games in Switzerland and Grenada, but it’s not an easy journey. They miss a ton of school, working with teachers and counselors to stay on track. On the road, their schedule consists primarily of practices, game preparation and hours in hallways of hotels doing homework.
“We have to make a lot of sacrifices in order to do this. Obviously, we love to do it,” Howell said. “It’s hit reality that we’re about to go represent our country and it’s actually going to count for something.”
The Americans are in a group with Paraguay, Ghana and Japan, needing to finish in the top two to advance to the quarterfinals. It will take six matches to win the World Cup.
Howell and Smith have stood on the field for the National Anthem many times in a U.S. shirt, but come Saturday it will carry extra weight. It’s their time.
“That’s all I think about,” Smith said. “Not very many people get to say at this age that they get to do something this awesome. Words can’t even describe the feeling.”
Follow sports reporter Kevin Lytle at twitter.com/Kevin_Lytle and at facebook.com/KevinSLytle.
U.S. schedule at U-17 Women’s World Cup
- 10 a.m. Oct 1 vs. Paraguay (Al Zarqa), available on Fox Soccer Plus, Fox Soccer 2GO app
- 7 a.m. Oct. 4 vs. Ghana (Amman), available on FS2, Fox Sports GO app
- 10 a.m. Oct. 8 vs. Japan (Amman), available FS2, Fox Sports GO app
Quarterfinals: Oct. 12-13, FS2, Fox Sports GO app
Semifinals: Oct. 17, available on FS2, Fox Sports GO app
Final: Oct. 21, available FS2, Fox Sports GO app