How ‘broken’ USWNT tries to deal with Becky Sauerbrunn’s World Cup absence

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Alex Morgan received the unexpected call, and heard the terrible news, and had to sit down immediately. That stopped her cold amid preparations for her fourth Women’s World Cup. Becky Sauerbrunn called Morgan to deliver it in person: Sauerbrunn, the universally admired captain of the US women’s national team, had aggravated a foot injury, and will not be going to New Zealand this summer . Morgan was “shocked,” and “immediately heartbroken.”

“So heartbroken for her, but also for me, and for this team,” Morgan said Wednesday. “Because she’s just had a huge impact on me and so many players.”

And Morgan wasn’t alone.

“We’re all stoked for Becky,” said head coach Vlatko Andonovski.

“There really aren’t many words, because it’s just – it’s a big loss for us,” forward Sophia Smith said.

Smith, defender Naomi Girma and World Cup veteran Crystal Dunn all echoed Morgan’s words: “heartbreak”.

They spoke shortly after US Soccer released the Women’s World Cup roster which, for the first time since 2007, will not include Sauerbrunn. And they talked about a 38-year-old who is much more than just a rock-hard center back. They spoke of a leader whom former teammates called their “backbone” and “moral compass.” They talked about a friend who will not be able to attend.

“Losing her is more than just playing on the field,” Dunn said. “Her ability to rally the group, and always lead us in the right direction, is something we will be greatly missed.”

Sauerbrunn has been a USWNT starter for about a decade now. She was one of the handful of women who connected times and generations, who connected the 2012 Olympic gold to the 2015 World Cup to the 2019 World Cup to the present day. Along the way, she became one of the best defenders in the history of the sport. She played 200-plus internationals, and never scored a goal but she never cared.

She was very humble, completely independent. She even considered asking US Soccer not to celebrate her 200th cap, because “it’s not about me, it’s also about the people who got me to this point,” she said in the April She prioritizes other people over herself, and that’s why the others now feel for her.

“She’s always thinking about the team first,” said Dunn, who has been in contact with Sauerbrunn over the past week. “And I had to tell her, ‘It’s OK to think about it. your position, and no only care about the team at this time.”

United States & # 39;  Becky Sauerbrunn shakes hands during the first half of an international friendly soccer match against Ireland Tuesday, April 11, 2023, in St. Louis.  (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
Becky Sauerbrunn of the United States shakes hands during the first half of an international friendly soccer match against Ireland Tuesday, April 11, 2023, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

By her mid-30s, Sauerbrunn was already a legend, an idol idolized by girls across America. Girma was one of those girls. In 2016, ahead of the Under-17 World Cup, Girma filled out a biographical questionnaire and named Sauerbrunn as her favorite player. A few years later, she began to realize that her idol was also a wonderful, down-to-earth person. Sauerbrunn hopped on a Zoom call with the U.S. Girma U-20 team to answer questions. She eventually helped bring Girma into the senior national team.

“Especially when you’re fresher, she’s very welcoming,” Girma told Yahoo Sports last month. She goes out of her way to be nice and welcome people.”

Sauerbrunn had deliberately tried to create that warm, inclusive environment. This went hand in hand with her dual role as captain of the team and president of the USWNT Players Association. In the dining room, and in downtime, she had read her books, and talked about her cats, and spread her witty sense of humor – “she’s very much herself, she’s very funny,” said Girma. In meeting rooms and on controversial calls, she also helped lead the campaign for equal pay.

And on the field, she would also hold every player accountable. “She raises the bar on every team she’s on,” Morgan said. She communicated with teammates and Andonovski. She earned their respect, so much so that Andonovski would bounce ideas off of her, and gauges her opinion on everything from tactics to interpersonal team dynamics.

“Every time I’ve worked with Becky, I’ve appointed or helped appoint her as a team captain,” said Andonovski, who originally coached for Sauerbrunn. in 2013 in Kansas City. “And the reason is that I trust her. I hope she can lead the team to success. She knows how to lead the team. She knows how to help the players.”

As the team prepared to celebrate its 200th cap, Andonovski said, “There is a special ceremony that we do that is more intimate, just for the team. on them, and what effect did she have on the game around the world…

“And obviously as a player, she’s amazing,” Girma said. “That too.”

She is an amazing player in a shallow position, and as such, she leaves a void that Girma and Alana Cook will try to fill. Behind them, Emily Sonnett’s versatile reserve. And behind Sonnett? No one. Andonovski indicated Wednesday that Julie Ertz, who was a center back with Sauerbrunn, could fill in if needed. But Sauerbrunn’s injury will have a depth chart domino effect.

The impact of his absence, however, extends far beyond the depth chart.

“She’s the epitome of exactly how one should conduct themselves, not just on the field but through life,” Smith said. “So without Becky, it’s going to be inter- different, it will be a challenge, and it will require a lot of players to step up.”

“It’s just terrible news ahead of the World Cup,” Morgan said. “I know she’s going to be our biggest supporter going into the World Cup, and trying to take home an award, like we did a few times ago. But, yeah, I’m sure she’s still processing everything – as some of us are.”

And who wears the captain’s armband instead?

Andonovski is still undecided. “Becky,” he said, “will be our captain forever.”

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