2814_isi_sauerbrunnbecky_uswntack20130615170 Andrew Katsampes/isiphotos.com
U.S. Women's Team

Becky Sauerbrunn Pushes For a Spot on U.S. Squad

As the U.S. women's national team eyes World Cup qualifying this fall, 28-year-old defender Becky Sauerbrunn is showing that she has what it takes to anchor the backline.
BY John D. Halloran Posted
February 11, 2014
5:46 PM
ON JANUARY 31ST, in her 50th international appearance, Becky Sauerbrunn helped the United States women’s national team open up its 2014 campaign in style with a 1-0 win over Canada. Not only was Sauerbrunn excellent defensively, helping the U.S. to a clean sheet while shutting down Canada’s world-class striker Christine Sinclair, but Sauerbrunn also picked up the game-winning assist on a superb run out of the back.

One week later against Russia, Sauerbrunn proved that performance was no fluke. She was excellent again, helping the U.S. to another shutout in the team’s 7-0 blowout win.

Sauerbrunn will look to build on those performances as the U.S. heads into World Cup qualifying in 2014 and further embellish her credentials as a rising star within the squad. The U.S. has one final friendly against Russia on Wednesday (7:30 p.m., broadcast on www.ussoccer.com) before it heads into action in its first official competition of 2014—the Algarve Cup in March.

The versatility that Sauerbrunn, 28, displayed against Canada—U.S. men’s national team fans might compare her favorably to Geoff Cameron—was a surprise to exactly no one in the team, including U.S. head coach Tom Sermanni.

“She embodies what’s required in a modern-day defender," Sermanni told American Soccer Now. "She has defensive qualities, she reads the game well, but also has that ability to bring the ball into midfield in possession comfortably and make good decisions. That’s a big asset she’s got over most center-backs that I’ve seen in women’s football.”

The game against Canada—in which Sauerbrunn picked up Woman of the Match honors—was merely a continuation of her outstanding year in 2013. Over the last year, Sauerbrunn won NWSL Defender of the Year honors in the league’s inaugural season and earned more international caps for the U.S. than any other center-back on the roster.

But Sauerbrunn isn’t taking anything for granted. She realizes how tough the competition for starting places on the U.S. squad continues to be, saying, “I don’t think I really know where I stand because there are so many great center-backs in the U.S., especially on this team.”

Sauerbrunn has been part of the U.S. women’s team for the past seven years and was part of the squad that took second at the 2011 World Cup and gold at the 2012 Olympics. However, in both of those major tournaments, she was forced to take a back seat to former coach Pia Sundhage’s preferred center-back pairing of Rachel Van Hollebeke (then Buehler) and captain Christie Rampone.

“It was hard with Pia as a coach not getting to play much,” Sauerbrunn said, “but [Sundhage] was very clear with me from the beginning about where I stood.”

A year-and-a-half later, with new coach Tom Sermanni at the helm, Sauerbrunn is now at the top of her game and challenging for a starting spot as the team heads into 2015 World Cup qualifying. Sauerbrunn says that under Sermanni she feels “more confident” with her place on the team—something her teammates see as well.

“Seeing her grow has been a great experience," U.S. right back Ali Krieger said. "She has come into her own. She brings something different to the table—her attacking mentality, just breaking pressure into the midfield to open up a lot of space and angles for other options."

"I feel confident in my position because she has my back," Krieger continued. "I think she feels the same way. We take care of each other—we support each other. As a fellow defender, she’s one of the best in the game.”

Heading into 2014, the U.S. women’s team is in a moment of transition, and everyone in and around the club is aware of it. The old guard is, well, getting older, and the next generation of stars—including Sauerbrunn—is eager to show what they can do. Christie Rampone, for instance, is 38 years old and has 288 international caps over an 18-year career. Though eager for more playing time, Sauerbrunn is deferential when the topic turns to Rampone.

“When I got my first cap, I played with her first [at center-back] and it was like I had been playing with her for years," Sauerbrunn said of Rampone. "She’s got so much experience. She’s just unbelievable, on and off the field. I don’t think I’ve ever had such a great leader and captain. She’s a living legend.”

Sauerbrunn continued: “She’s still playing, she’s still amazing. With her, the way that she can play, it’s going to be her decision" about stepping down.

"She’s just that good.”

But Sauerbrunn also believes the U.S.’s current depth can help smooth over any rough patches that may appear when Rampone retires from international play. “With Rachel [Van Hollebeke], Whitney Engen, and myself, we’ve been playing with each other for so long now, I think we would do OK.”

Shannon Boxx is another national team stalwart who has been with the U.S. women’s side since 2003, amassing 186 caps during that span. But Boxx hasn’t been with the team since March, something the team is still trying to address.

“With Boxy it was just so clear that she was going to be sitting in front of us cleaning up,” Sauerbrunn says, “I can’t tell you how important that is as a center-back. With her gone and so many center midfielders being evaluated by [Sermanni], it’s finding the right combination and knowing when one needs to go [forward] and one needs to stay [back]. It’s an ongoing theme in a lot of our camps.

"Morgan Brian did a great job against Canada and Amber Brooks against Brazil a few months ago did a great job. There are definitely players that can fill that role.”

Some fans have suggested that Sauerbrunn, with her defensive abilities, possession-oriented game, and strong attacking skills could be the solution for the U.S. at holding midfielder. But Sauerbrunn thinks that might be a stretch.

“There’s never been a serious discussion about me playing in the midfield," she said. "It’s such an important position and I haven’t played center mid in many, many years. It’s something I’d have to train at exclusively. I don’t know if I could do at the international level. It’s a really tough job.”

With the 2015 World Cup qualification tournament only eight months away—it will be held October 16-26 in Mexico—the U.S. has plenty of questions that need answering. But if Sauerbrunn’s performance against Canada is any indication, she’s ready to step up and be a much bigger part of the U.S.’s World Cup plans.

John D. Halloran is an American Soccer Now columnist. Follow him on Twitter.

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