The name Becky Sauerbrunn may not be as familiar to the average American as Alex Morgan or Hope Solo, but when it comes to the United States Women’s National Soccer Team’s dream of winning the 2015 World Cup, her play could be the difference between making history and going home early.
The 29-year-old center-back is the only member of the USWNT to have played every minute of every match so far in 2015 (that’s six matches totaling 540 minutes, per ussoccer.com). In that time, the U.S. boasted a record of 4-1-1.
Most recently, Sauerbrunn was instrumental in helping the U.S. to a 2-0 victory over France on March 12 to help earn America’s 10th Algarve Cup.
Though she was paired with the less-experienced Julie Johnson—who earned her first senior cap in 2013 and was seeing significant high-stakes action for the first time at the 2015 Algarve Cup—Sauerbrunn kept her backline organized for the full 90 and earned a clean sheet against the No. 3 team in the world.
“I’m obviously pleased with the result,” said USWNT head coach Jill Ellis after the final, per ussoccer.com. “I think it was a competitive match with two good opponents. It was good for our confidence to get on the board early, but France put us under a tremendous amount of pressure.”
Ellis later added, “The aggression and the defensive battles for 50-50 balls were really important to the outcome of this game so, I was really pleased.”
When it comes to building a championship team for any cup (be it Algarve or World), most would agree that consistent success relies upon the strong foundation of defense. And for the USWNT, that defense begins with Becky Sauerbrunn.
After years of proving herself a dependable substitute and earning a starting spot, Sauerbrunn solidified her place in the team in 2014 with 22 appearances—including 20 starts, per ussoccer.com—and never looked back (as is aptly summarized in the Tweet/conveniently worded Adidas ad below).
Becky Sauerbrunn @beckysauerbrunn
The past doesn't matter. Take today. @adidas https://t.co/9IcWcfrGcs2/10/2015, 10:57:22 PM
Before this year, she was battle tested in the U.S.’s 2014 CONCACAF Championship and 2012 Olympics victories, as well as the USWNT’s runner-up finish in the 2011 World Cup. While those international performances proved she could step up for the big games, Sauerbrunn’s domestic career has shown she is consistent at the club level as well.
Sauerbrunn recently became the first NWSL player to win back-to-back “Defender of the Year” honors for the 2014 and 2013 seasons. Her play in 2014 also helped her FC Kansas City team upset Seattle Reign FC 2-1 to claim its first league title.
She also holds the distinction of being the only player to have played every minute of the first two WPS seasons, per ussoccer.com. In short, Sauerbrunn is an absolute rock in defense—and she’s only getting better with age.
What does this mean for the women’s national team heading into World Cup 2015?
It means Hope Solo knows she can trust her last line of defense against the toughest opponents (and that’s exactly who the Americans will be facing in Canada this summer).
In an interview concerning the Algarve Cup final, per ussoccer.com, Solo said, “[It] was a very tactical game, but we had an organized defense, we were on the same page and we knew what we were doing…Jill [Ellis] had a great game plan, we stuck to it, and had an organized defense, which led to our counterattacks and we came out on top.”
Concerning Sauerbrunn specifically, the U.S. goalkeeper said, per Joe Lyons of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “Becky’s awesome. Incredible. On the ball, she’s one of the most confident defenders I’ve ever played with. She’s smart, she’s tactical and she’s technical. She goes in hard for tackles; she’s just fun to play behind.”
Having the reliable Sauerbrunn in the backline also means Ellis has one fewer position to worry about heading into June. This will allow the coach to focus more on the dynamic attacking dimensions of the team.
According to SI’s Grant Wahl, the Ellis recently said:
I feel good about our team defending, about our accountability and responsibilities defensively. Now it’s about fine-tuning the attacking stuff… We’re spending this whole week [in training] focusing on our attacking play. That’s usually the last piece to come together. These next two months we’re focusing on that.
Ellis will be faced with difficult decisions about which players to start up top, considering Alex Morgan, Abby Wombach and Amy Rodriguez (who started the Algarve Cup final) all have strong cases in their favor.
And let’s not forget about Christen Press, who showed this devastating combination of speed and finishing against France:
While having interchangeable forwards is beneficial for maximizing attacking advantages against different opponents, the opposite is generally true when a coach is determining defenders. Every World Cup team would rather have a seasoned center-back with years of quality performances to rely upon. That’s exactly what the USWNT has in Sauerbrunn.
When facing their “group of death” opponents Sweden, Australia and Nigeria, Ellis and her team will be happy they won’t have to wonder about Sauerbrunn watching its backs. In fact, they can find additional confidence in the fact that she had experience going up against star Australian forward Lisa de Vanna when she played for Sky Blue FC in 2013.
And, in addition to marking the 2013 Australian female footballer of the year, Sauerbrunn is also familiar with defending teammate and 2013 CONCACAF Female Player of the Year Alex Morgan. Though she obviously won’t be playing against Morgan, her experience going up against one of the world’s best is invaluable.
Regarding Morgan, Sauerbrunn told nwslsoccer.com:
Alex is just so opportunistic and a natural goal scorer – you really have to be on your game with her. If you make a weak back pass, she’s on it. If you make a bad touch, she’s going to tackle it away from you. You just have to know where she is because she will absolutely capitalize on any of your mistakes.
In case it isn’t clear from the above quote, Sauerbrunn is a proactive defender with a fantastic eye for anticipating opponents’ play and has experience taking on world-class goal scorers. That mentality keeps her one step ahead of players who merely react to the game, allowing her to make brilliant plays like this one against the Washington Spirit:
And, just for good measure, here’s a clip of her making a perfect tackle on five-time FIFA World Player of the Year Marta:
Ellis and the rest of Team USA seem to be very confident in Sauerbrunn’s abilities, but how does the player herself view the role?
“I’ve been given a lot of freedom and asked to be more of a leader,” she said, per Lyons. “That’s translated into confidence and it’s definitely carried over to my play with the national team. A big part of my job is communication, making sure everybody’s in position and that everything in the back is organized.”
When it comes to the World Cup, no coach could ask for more than an experienced center-back with phenomenal skill, high soccer IQ and the desire to be a leader. In Sauerbrunn, the USWNT has the complete defender it needs to reclaim the world championship.
Though the headlines may go to goal-scoring Morgan, penalty-saving Solo and timeless Wambach, expect Sauerbrunn to be the heart and soul of the defensive line as they reclaim the World Cup for Team USA.