How a heartbroken USWNT will try to cope with Becky Sauerbrunn’s absence from the Worlds
Alex Morgan received the unexpected call, heard the devastating news and had to sit down immediately. It stopped her cold during preparations for her fourth Women’s World Cup. Becky Sauerbrunn called Morgan to tell him first-hand: Sauerbrunn, the well-respected captain of the US women’s national team, has injured her foot and will not be traveling to New Zealand this summer. Morgan was “shocked” and “instantly heartbroken”.
“So heartbroken for them, but also for me and this team,” Morgan said Wednesday. “Because she just had a big impact on me and so many players.”
And Morgan wasn’t alone.
“We are all disappointed with Becky,” said head coach Vlatko Andonovski.
“There aren’t really many words because it’s simple – it’s a big loss for us,” said striker Sophia Smith.
Smith, defender Naomi Girma and World Cup veteran Crystal Dunn all echoed Morgan’s words: “heartbreaking.”
They spoke shortly after US Soccer announced a squad for the Women’s World Cup that will not feature Sauerbrunn for the first time since 2007. And they talked about a 38-year-old who is far more than just a rock-solid centre-back. They spoke of a leader teammates had previously referred to as their “backbone” and “moral compass.” They talked about a friend whose presence will be irreplaceable.
“Losing them is more important than just their game on the field,” Dunn said. “Your ability to bring the group together and really guide us in the right direction at all times will be greatly missed.”
Sauerbrunn has been a USWNT starter for about a decade. She was one of the few women who bridged eras and generations, linking the 2012 Olympics, the 2015 World Championships and the 2019 World Championships to the present. Over time, she developed into one of the best defenders in the history of the sport. She’s played more than 200 international matches and never scored a goal, but she didn’t care.
She was exceedingly humble and endearingly selfless. She even considered asking US Soccer not to celebrate her 200th cap because “it’s not about me, it’s about the people who brought me to this moment,” she said in April. She puts others before herself, and because of that, those others now feel sorry for her.
“She always thinks of the team first,” said Dunn, who has been communicating with Sauerbrunn over the past week. “And I kind of had to tell her, ‘It’s okay to think about your situation and not.’ only I’m taking care of the team right now.’”
By his mid-30s, Sauerbrunn was already a legend, an icon idolized by girls across America. Girma was one of those girls. In 2016, ahead of the U17 World Cup, Girma filled out a biographical questionnaire and named Sauerbrunn as her favorite player. A few years later, she realized that her idol was also an incredible, down-to-earth person. Sauerbrunn took part in a Zoom call with Girma’s US U-20 team to answer questions. She eventually helped integrate Girma into the senior team.
“Especially when you’re new, she’s very welcoming,” Girma told Emox News last month. “It doesn’t have to be someone with their status in the group. She goes out of her way to be nice and to make people feel welcome.”
Sauerbrunn made a conscious effort to create this warm, inclusive environment. This went hand in hand with her dual roles as captain of the team and president of the USWNT Players Association. In the dining room and during her free time, she read her books, talked about her cats and let her witty humor run free – “she’s very herself, she’s very funny,” said Girma. In boardrooms and on controversial calls, she also helped push equal pay demands.
And on the pitch, she would hold every single player accountable, too. “She raises the standards of every team she plays on,” Morgan said. She maintained contact with teammates and with Andonovski. She earned their utmost respect, so much so that Andonovski shared her ideas and gauged her opinion on everything from tactics to interpersonal team dynamics.
“Every time I’ve worked with Becky, I’ve named her or helped appoint her to captain the team,” said Andonovski, who first coached Sauerbrunn in 2013 in Kansas City. “And it’s because I trust her. I trust that 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 said: “We’re doing a certain ceremony, which is more intimate, just for the team. It was amazing to hear the players talking about Becky and how much she means to her and how much of an impact she’s had on the game around the world… and how much she’s impacted their careers.
“And of course she’s amazing as a player,” Girma added. “That too.”
She’s an incredible player in a flat position, leaving a void that Girma and Alana Cook will look to fill. Behind it is the versatile, reserved Emily Sonnett. And behind Sonnet? No one. Andonovski hinted on Wednesday that Julie Ertz, a former centre-back alongside Sauerbrunn, could step in if needed. But Sauerbrunn’s injury will have a domino effect.
However, the impact of their absence will extend well beyond the depth map.
“She’s a prime example of how a person should move, not just on the field but through life,” Smith said. “If Becky isn’t there it will be different, it will be a challenge and a lot of players need to step up.”
“It’s just terrible news coming up to a World Cup,” Morgan added. “I know she will be our biggest support when we go to the World Cup and try to take home the trophy like we have done the last couple of times. But yeah, I’m sure she’ll still process it all — as do some of us.”
And who will wear the captain’s armband in their place?
Andonovski hasn’t decided yet. “Becky,” he said, “will always be our captain.”