Becky Sauerbrunn is widely regarded as one of the best defenders in the world, and perhaps even the finest center-back playing the game today. A three-time NWSL Defender of the Year, she is the only player to have won an award in all three years of the league’s existence. The co-captain of the U.S. Women’s National Team recently celebrated her 100th appearance for the USA on Feb. 21 in a 2-0 U.S. win against Canada in the title match at the 2016 CONCACAF Women’s Olympic Qualifying Championship, thus becoming the 35th U.S. woman to reach the century mark in the history of the WNT program.
“It felt amazing to earn 100 caps because how often does your 100th cap fall on the same day as a championship match of a very important tournament?” Sauerbrunn said. “So the fact that it was Canada, it was the championship match, it was a wonderful day with a great match atmosphere. I felt pretty lucky.”
When fans and media talk about Sauerbrunn, the discussions tend to center around her incredible vision and skill and the smart decisions she makes while on the pitch. She has a decisive presence on the field, is adept with both feet and is seemingly always moving smoothly and under control. She is tactical, she is precise, and she rarely makes mistakes, a huge plus for a defender.
Sauerbrunn evokes a sense of respect and admiration amongst fans, soccer peers and media members. They call her the “silent assassin” and “Broon,” a nickname on the German pronunciation of her name once uttered on a U.S. Soccer video by teammate Ali Krieger. She is humble and she is steady. She is also the kind of player that will always let her play speak for her and that will work as hard as she can to be better than she was yesterday.
In 2015, Sauerbrunn experienced her best year with the National Team. She was the only U.S. player to start all 25 matches, a new career high, including all seven at the FIFA Women’s World Cup, where her spectacular performance marshaling the backline alongside Hope Solo, Ali Krieger, Julie Johnston and Meghan Klingenberg shutdown opponents for 539 minutes, one minute away from tying the World Cup record. She was also on the field for 2,184 minutes last year, the most on the team and the most minutes she has played wearing the red, white and blue in a calendar year.
It is this hard work that has gotten Sauerbrunn to where she is today. It is also what made her 100th cap all the more special. The road to 100, and the road onto a National Team starting spot were not easy. Sauerbrunn had a few bumps on the journey, starting with a broken nose.
Back in 2008, then U.S. WNT head coach Pia Sundhage named the recent University of Virginia graduate to the roster for the Four Nations Tournament in China. Sauerbrunn made her debut on Jan. 16 as part of the starting lineup.
“I was so excited that I got to start on my first cap because I know that’s very rare to happen with the National Team, and we were in China and there were some injuries so I got to start with Christie (Rampone) at center-back,” Sauerbrunn recalls. “So I remember it perfectly because it was going well. I felt good and we were playing well and we were up. Then we go into the second half and around the 70th minute, there’s a ball and the forward is trying to flick it on, and it flicked my face. I remember reaching up and just thinking ‘woah, that really hurt’ but I’m going to keep playing.”
There’s no denying that Sauerbrunn is a tough competitor. She dives for balls and goes in for tackles without hesitation, but on this day, six years ago, and with her face and jersey all covered in blood, she had no choice but to listen to the ref and head to the sidelines.
“I reached up and felt my nose and it felt wrong, my entire face felt wrong,” Sauerbrunn said. “I was like, ‘oh no, I don’t want to leave the field. This is my first cap!’ but the ref was like ‘you need to leave the field.’”
Off the pitch, Sauerbrunn was presented with two options, to wait until she got to the hotel and get her nose fixed there, which at that point would feel like they were re-breaking it again, or to get it reset right then and there.
“I looked in the mirror and it was hideous and I was like do it right now, please,” she said “So the doctor knocked it right in there and I got to play in the championship match a few days later. And my first assist was in the championship match, against Canada, which was my second cap.”
A recent college grad and two caps under her belt, Sauerbrunn thought things were going perfect in what was the beginning of her National Team career.
But those would be her only two caps until 2010. Sauerbrunn said, “Pia told me, ‘you’re just not ready. I think we’re going to put you down with the U-23 WNT.’ Luckily the WPS was just starting so I got to play in a professional league. This all made me a more complete player because looking back, I wasn’t ready yet.”
In 2010, she got a call again, and played in one match, but set the stage for 2011 which was her breakthrough year.
“I was a reserve player and Pia made that very clear to me so I just worked my butt off and learned as much as I could and took every opportunity I could on the field to do my best and show her that maybe I deserve more playing time,” said Sauerbrunn.
In 2011, Sauerbrunn finally started to get consistent playing time. She saw action in 12 games in 2011, starting eight. One of her biggest starts came during the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup semifinal. With defender Rachel Van Hollebeke suspended from the match due to a red card in the quarterfinal game against Brazil, Sauerbrunn was told she was starting in the back next to Rampone. Never having seen any World Cup action until then, Sauerbrunn played a stellar match, staying on for the full 90 minutes and helping the USA advance to the final after a 3-1 win against France.
In the years since then, Sauerbrunn has grown into a rock solid leader in the back line. Her teammates trust and believe in her, and so does current head coach Jill Ellis, who earlier this year named her, alongside Carli Lloyd, a captain for the WNT.
The journey to 100 caps wasn’t a smooth one, but perhaps that made the journey even better. Sauerbrunn believes that journey is perhaps the reason she is the kind of player she is today.
“I had to take a back seat and watch all of the success and that was fine,” she said. “It was hard but it was fine because I understood. I wouldn’t be here without all of the stuff I had to go through after college. I don’t think that if I had had smooth sailing and made every roster, that I would be the player I am today nor have the attitude or personality I have now. I know what it is to struggle and have the rough journey on this team. I think in that respect that has helped me be a leader. I can relate to these young players coming in. I can feel for these players, share my scars with them, and just tell them to just keep working hard, take advantage of the opportunities and good things will happen.”
As the USA continues preparation for the Olympics, Sauerbrunn is sure to be a key part of the team. She’s not a loud presence, nor a goal scoring presence, but a vital presence as a leader letting her game speak for itself.