How a ‘heartbroken’ USWNT will try to cope with Becky Sauerbrunn’s World Cup absence

Alex Morgan received the unexpected call, heard the devastating news and immediately had to sit down. It stopped her amid preparations for her fourth Women’s World Cup. Becky Sauerbrunn phoned Morgan to tell it first hand: Sauerbrunn, the captain of the universally adored US Women’s National Team, had aggravated a foot injury and won’t 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 just had a huge impact on me and so many players.”

And Morgan was not alone.

“We are all disgusted for Becky,” said head coach Vlatko Andonovski.

“There aren’t really a lot of 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 word: “heartbreaking.”

They spoke shortly after US Soccer revealed a 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 so much more than just a rock-solid centre-back. They spoke of a leader who his teammates have previously called their “backbone” and “moral compass.” They spoke of a friend whose presence will be impossible to replace.

“Losing her is more important than her game on the court,” Dunn said. “His ability to bring the group together and really steer us in the right direction at all times is something that will be sorely missed.”

Sauerbrunn has been a starter in the USWNT for about a decade now. She was one of a handful of women who bridged eras and generations, who connected Olympic gold from 2012 to the 2015 World Cup to the 2019 World Cup until today. Along the way, she became one of the greatest defenders in the history of the sport. She played more than 200 international matches and never scored a goal, but never cared.

She was extremely humble, endearingly selfless. 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 brought me to this moment”, he said. she said in April. She prioritizes others over herself, and that’s why those others now feel for her.

“She always thinks of the team first,” said Dunn, who contacted Sauerbrunn last week. “And I had to tell him, ‘It’s OK to think about your situation, and not only cares about the team right now.'”

USA' Becky Sauerbrunn waves as she departs 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 waves as she leaves during the first half of an international friendly soccer match against Ireland Tuesday, April 11, 2023 in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

By his mid-thirties, Sauerbrunn was already a legend, an icon that girls all over America idolized. Girma was one of those girls. In 2016, ahead of the Under-17 World Cup, Girma completed a biographical questionnaire and named Sauerbrunn as his favorite player. A few years later, she began to realize that her idol was also an amazing, down-to-earth human being. Sauerbrunn hopped on a Zoom call with U.S. U-20 team Girma to answer questions. She eventually helped induct Girma into the senior national team.

“Especially when you’re newer, she’s very welcoming,” Girma told Yahoo Sports last month. “Someone with her status in the group doesn’t have to be. She goes out of her way to be nice and welcoming people.”

Sauerbrunn had very intentionally tried to create this warm and inclusive environment. This went along with her dual role as team captain and president of the USWNT Players Association. In the dining room and during downtime, she read her books, talked about her cats and unleashed her witty humor — “she’s really herself, she’s very funny,” Girma said. In boardrooms and on contentious calls, she also helped lead the campaign for equal pay.

And on the pitch, she would also hold every player accountable. “She raises the standards of every team she’s on,” Morgan said. She would liaise with her teammates and with Andonovski. She earned their utmost respect, so much so that Andonovski would pitch ideas to her and gauge her opinion on everything from tactics to interpersonal team dynamics.

“Every time I’ve worked with Becky, I’ve named her or helped name her as team captain,” said Andonovski, who first coached Sauerbrunn in 2013 at Kansas City. “And the reason is that I trust her. I’m confident 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 their 200th cap, Andonovski shared: “There’s a certain ceremony we do that’s more intimate, just for the team. It was amazing to hear how the players talked of Becky, and how much she means to them, and what impact she’s had on the game globally…and what impact she’s had on their careers.”

“And obviously as a player she is amazing,” added Girma. “That too.”

She’s an incredible player in a shallow position, so she leaves a void that Girma and Alana Cook will try to fill. Behind them is all-purpose reserve Emily Sonnett. And behind Sonnett? Person. Andonovski indicated on Wednesday that Julie Ertz, a former central defender alongside Sauerbrunn, could replace if necessary. But Sauerbrunn’s injury will have a domino effect on the depth chart.

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

“She’s a great example of how a person should behave, not just on the court but throughout life,” Smith said. “So not having Becky there is going to be different, it’s going to be a challenge, and it’s going to require a lot of players to step in.”

“It’s just terrible news just before a World Cup,” added Morgan. “I know she will be our biggest supporter as we go to the World Cup and she will try to bring the trophy home, like we have done the last few times. But, yeah, I’m sure that she’s always processing everything – like some of us are.”

And who will wear the captain’s armband instead?

Andonovski hasn’t decided yet. “Becky,” he said, “will always be our captain.”

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