espnW Soccer Player Of The Year: Virginia's Emily Sonnett
To suggest a person cannot lead from behind is to ignore all that happens in front of Emily Sonnett, the University of Virginia senior defender who is very much and very vocally in charge of a team that enters the first round of the NCAA tournament ranked No. 1 in the country.
She motivates teammates, she organizes and instructs. And when necessary, she puts the fear of God in them. All from the back line.
"For some people, it takes them aback if they are talked to a certain way or yelled at a certain way or things like that," Virginia coach Steve Swanson said. "Where some people frame [their message less bluntly], Emily, what's on her chest is on her chest. And she'll get it off her chest."
It takes a great deal for center backs to get attention. It isn't a position that lends itself to statistical glory or dazzling highlights. But when a center back is as good as Sonnett at not only taking away what opponents do best but getting the best out of those around her, it gets noticed.
It earned her a chance to start for the United States in an October game against Brazil. And it makes her espnW's national player of the year.
A year after it played for the national title, Virginia is statistically an even better defensive team this season in no small part because Sonnett plays her position as well as it can be played at the college level. The Cavaliers enter the NCAA tournament allowing just 0.58 goals per game. If maintained, it would be their best such mark since 2007, when Becky Sauerbrunn, now arguably the world's best defender for the United States and NWSL's FC Kansas City, played alongside another exceptional back in Nikki Phillips (then Krzysik).
Sonnett, too, is half of a quality partnership alongside Kristen McNabb, but her play stands alone. She has the speed, strength and athleticism to excel and increasingly has the understanding of situations and tactics to put those physical gifts to the best use. It doesn't hurt that one way to explain the intensity and mercilessness with which she plays is to think of the NHL playoffs. Game 7 of the playoffs. In double overtime.
"Our goalies usually don't have a lot of saves to make," Swanson said. "On the penetration side, it has certainly been minimized -- that's not a stat, like 'Hey, our penetration was minimized,' but you just see it. If you really watch our team or have been around our team for a while, you feel it."
An attacking midfielder and prolific goal scorer before she got to Virginia, Sonnett isn't tethered to the back line. Swanson saw in in her someone who could reinvent how the position is played in the college game and has given her the freedom to roam forward to do so.
All of it led to Sonnett playing alongside Sauerbrunn for the U.S. in front of 32,869 fans in Orlando on Oct. 25. Former Virginia star Morgan Brian was also on the field that day. Her ascension to World Cup starter was something that drove home to Sonnett what was possible.
"I think seeing Morgan go through it and seeing how fast she was put into the environment and how she excelled, I think that was when I kind of realized, 'Hey, if that's something I want, then this is a great training environment at Virginia to get there,'" Sonnett said. "If I can push the limits here, anything is possible. Having Morgan, seeing her go through it just made it that much more real."
There is a standard of focus and intensity that Emily demands of the players that play around her. She's not afraid to hold her teammates accountable in that regard. That was one of the unique aspects of our team dynamic this year is that Emily's style of leadership is different than the team was used to.Virginia coach Steve Swanson on Emily Sonnett
If Sonnett were only a superb center back with offensive skills, even she might not have edged out the competition of player-of-the-year contenders such as West Virginia defender Kadeisha Buchanan, Florida forward Savannah Jordan or Stanford midfielder Andi Sullivan.
As much as the goals Virginia's opponents didn't score, Sonnett's season is defined by the games Virginia did win. Few expected the Cavaliers to fall off the map, but after bidding farewell to Brian, a two-time Hermann Trophy winner, and NWSL rookie of the year Danielle Colaprico, some regression seemed inevitable after back-to-back College Cup appearances. Instead, Virginia went 9-1-0 in the nation's best conference.
For all its success with Brian and its longstanding place as an elite program, it is still just Virginia's second regular-season championship.
"It is a huge accomplishment for this team, losing that high caliber of players, to win a regular-season ACC title," Sonnett said.
In talking about what has been for the team, at times, a challenging search for an identity, Sonnett dispersed credit among her teammates, and undoubtedly with reason. Players such as Alexis Shaffer, Brittany Ratcliffe, Betsy Brandon and others either contributed more as returnees or stepped in without a bobble as newcomers. But without as talismanic a figure as Brian, a commanding presence in a more subtle way, players had to follow someone's lead. Even if she was behind them.
"There is a standard of focus and intensity that Emily demands of the players that play around her," Swanson said. "She's not afraid to hold her teammates accountable in that regard. That was one of the unique aspects of our team dynamic this year, is that Emily's style of leadership is different than the team was used to.
"I think the team has recognized that the qualities Emily has, we need. So even though to some, if they had a leadership style that is very emotional like Emily, they might respond in a different way. I think they know who Emily is, and I think Emily has taken the time to involve herself in the team as much as she has so that they respect her, and they know where she is coming from."
Or as ACC all-freshman selection Courtney Petersen said to Charlottesville's Daily Progress newspaper, "I want to be like her one day."
Leaders have that effect on people.