How Becky Sauerbrunn Became the USWNT's New Defensive Cornerstone
VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Becky Sauerbrunn has been a voracious reader almost as long as the letters made sense, back to childhood days when her parents packed her off on an soccer trips with all the necessary gear for games but also, in those times before tablets and hand-held libraries, enough paperbacks to sustain her until she returned.
When midfielder Megan Rapinoe recently answered a question about how players pass the not insubstantial downtime during the World Cup by enumerating a list of activities like massages and eating, Sauerbrunn chimed in to add reading to the list. Rapinoe all but rolled her eyes with the amused look of one used to seeing her teammate's attention glued to a reading device, in some cases still the old-fashioned ones with heft and dog-eared pages.
"Becky reads all day long," Rapinoe joked.
The book of choice for Sauerbrunn as the team wrapped up group play was "Station Eleven," Emily St. John Mandel's novel about a troupe of musicians and Shakespearean actors who travel around Lake Huron and Lake Michigan in a dystopian future two decades after a plague wipes out much of the planet's human population and technology.
You know, a cheerful light read about what happens when the world collapses.
The prospect of a loss to Colombia, Cameroon or China that would prevent an American spot in the semifinals notwithstanding, Sauerbrunn is not the last line of humanity, just the bulwark of a back line thus far largely successful in stopping the likes of Australia's Lisa De Vanna, Sweden's Lotta Schelin and Nigeria's Asisat Oshoala on the World Cup stage.
Indeed, the best collective performance for the Americans in three group games came from a partnership that took the field for the opening game with nary an appearance in World Cup group games between them. Four years ago, Sauerbrunn watched the first four games of the team's run in Germany from the bench, while Julie Johnston was then still a midfielder at Santa Clara and a year away from a breakthrough defensive performance in the Under-20 World Cup.
Yet despite playing in the supposed Group of Death, the United States matched its fewest goals allowed in the tournament's first phase in six previous appearances.
"I think everything works well with those two right now," U.S. midfielder Lauren Holiday said. "They've both been awesome. I think that Becky is such a leader. I truly think that she's one of the best defenders in the world, and I think that [Johnston] is so freaking coachable. She's just come in and she's embraced her role, and I think she's done phenomenal."
In the process, Sauerbrunn has quietly -- more quietly at least than the Sturm und Drang associated with the personalities and personnel on the lines ahead of her -- transitioned into power. Hers is a back line with more than a hundred fewer caps as a quartet than Christie Rampone on her own, but it is led by perhaps the best defender in the world.
I truly think that she's one of the best defenders in the world.U.S. midfielder Lauren Holiday on teammate Becky Sauerbrunn
It is quite an accomplishment for someone who was so far from that status five years ago that she didn't recognize Pia Sundhage's phone number when the former U.S. national team coach called the defender ahead of a national team camp. Then several years out of Virginia and trying to carve out a niche in Women's Professional Soccer, the now-defunct domestic league, Sauerbrunn was in that moment physically preparing to enter a movie theater and mentally preparing for a career without a Hollywood twist.
"I kind of had to convince myself when I was playing for the Washington Freedom that this was the highest level that I'm going to reach," Sauerbrunn recalled during World Cup qualifying last fall. "'I'm going to be a professional player, and I'm going to try and be the best one I can be, but it's maybe just not in my cards to be an international player. I won't play in a World Cup.' That was hard for me."
But the message from Sundhage said that an injury meant there was a place for her in the camp. Sauerbrunn was on a flight the next morning. She was impressive enough that at 25 years old, she finally earned her third cap more than two years after she made her first two appearances for the national team. Then she waited some more, starting the 2011 World Cup semifinal against France because of Rachel Buehler's red card but returning to the bench for the final of that tournament and the duration of the 2012 Olympics.
So even as she proved herself as the best defender in the National Women's Soccer League, earning the award to that effect in each of her first two seasons with FC Kansas City, it appeared Sauerbrunn would still be the junior partner in a central defensive pairing with Rampone as the United States looked to reclaim the World Cup title. The two started the first and final games of the CONCACAF qualifying tournament together.
"When you have somebody like Christie Rampone, with the vast experience she has had, you're going to defer to her line because she has played in so many huge games and she knows what she's talking about," Sauerbrunn said at the time. "If there is a back line where Christie's not in it and maybe I'm one of the older players, then maybe I'm the one that starts running the line."
That proved to be, as any bookworm would know, a bit of foreshadowing. Injuries slowed Rampone this year and opened the door for Johnston to follow her own semi-miraculous path into the starting lineup after making the qualifying roster last fall only as a last-minute injury replacement. So instead of one player with 307 caps, the back line of Johnston, Meghan Klingenberg, Ali Krieger and Sauerbrunn has 205 caps entering the knockout round game against Colombia on Monday.
Asked in Vancouver how that, in fact, changes Sauerbrunn's role, United States coach Jill Ellis quipped that it inspired the defender to go to church with greater regularity.
"We're very understanding of one another and very communicative," Sauerbrunn said this week. "We like to watch soccer, so we feel like we're on the same page. And I think that helps a lot, too, because it's hard to hear out there. We're communicating a lot with our body language. When we see people in our peripheral dropping or stepping, we're all doing it together because we trust the person next to us."
That still includes communication with Rampone, who came on as a substitute at outside back late in the group-clinching win against Nigeria for her first appearance in her fifth World Cup. She is among the first people Sauerbrunn seeks out at halftime for a different perspective. Against Sweden, the advice was to condense the space between the American lines. Against Nigeria, it was more positive reinforcement, encouraging Sauerbrunn and Johnston to continue covering each other's backs when one stepped to the ball on what Rampone described as a wet, slippery field.
It would also be remiss not to include Hope Solo in the discussion of the back line, the vocal goalkeeper obviously an important figure in organizing the players in front of her. But the guidance from the sideline and instructions from goal aside, it is Sauerbrunn who must lead, by dint of her central position but also her relative experience and talent.
"I think that she's easy to play with and a great leader," Krieger said. "She's a role model for a lot of the younger defenders as well. I think [Johnston] looks up to her in that way. We want to make sure our back line is strong and all on the same page, and so we try and take the role of that and then just coach each other constantly."
There have been highlight-clip plays, including Sauerbrunn's recovery after she came up empty on an initial challenge against Sweden's Schelin (just as the image of Johnston lodged in many minds will be her brilliant recovery after she was initially beaten for pace by Nigeria's Oshoala on a half-field sprint). But defense, Sauerbrunn insists, is more proactive than reactive when played the way she prefers to play it. The last-ditch challenge, goal-line clearance or body sacrificed to block a shot might all be necessary, but the adrenaline rush for defenders, their moment of joy equivalent to a goal scorer's celebration, is more subtle.
"It's the frustration you see in a forward when it's not working and you know that you're winning the ball," Rampone said. "You've got to make it that, your own game within the game. Obviously, you don't want them to get shots on goal, but you also want to get them to where their head is down or they're pulling back so far into the midfield to get the ball that you know you're winning because they're frustrated with their own team."
To watch these games in person and see the full field in motion is to see Sauerbrunn do that as well as anyone in the world right now.
Books are her chance to carve out her own space and, in her words, escape for a time the pressure that sometimes comes with playing soccer. But few players look more calm in those moments when the game threatens to crumble around her. She makes you believe she will be in the right place, that she will get the job done.
Come to think of it, she is the kind of person you would be wise to follow across a dystopian landscape.
She would certainly know some good stories.