The Legacy Series spotlights individuals who have had a hand (and foot) in shaping St. Louis into America’s first soccer capital.
Becky Sauerbrunn: Never Backing Down
Written by Michael Haffner
“They said that I was fearless.”
As a center back, you can’t be afraid to get in the middle of the action. With the modern game, a center back has to do so much more than protect the ball from hitting the back of the net. They have to close down spaces; they have to be fast and have quick recovery time during high press moments; they have to break lines with long balls. In short, it’s a multi-faceted position that is usually defined by someone big and fast. It’s an intimidating position that not many want to serve as.
Becky Sauerbrunn is the first to admit that she’s not the ideal center back. “I’m not super tall, fast, or strong like the typical center back.” What she has in place of those qualities is that she has embraced the analytical side of the game. “The reason why I have played as long as I have is because I can problem solve. I can see spaces. I can identify dangerous spots that teams can capitalize on.” She may not be able to outmuscle her opponents, but she can outthink them. It requires a certain level of fearlessness and tactical intuition to see an imposing player running toward you and know how to best position yourself to win the ball.
With just over 200 appearances for the U.S. Women’s National Team, Sauerbrunn is one of only 12 players who have reached this milestone for the team. She’s played in three Olympic Games (2012, 2016, 2020) and three World Cups (2011, 2015, 2019) – a two-time champion in each who has worn the captain’s armband for many of those matches since 2016. The St. Louis native has even gotten to play in front of her hometown twice, most recently in 2019 when the USWNT defeated New Zealand.
Outside of her role on the USWNT, she has won Defensive Player of the Year in each of the first three seasons of the National Women’s Soccer League and recently signed on for another year with the Portland Thorns since joining the team in 2020. Like the role of the center back, it was a fight to get to where she is today, but it was a battle she was prepared for.
Fighting for Space
“I always found myself in the way of the ball.”
You can learn a lot about yourself and what you’re capable of achieving when you’re faced with a tough adversary. Sauerbrunn mainly played with boys growing up in St. Louis. Her brothers never made it easy for her but playing coed indoor soccer at Concord Sports and Vetta locations provided an opportunity for her not to let her size stand in her way.
“I didn’t have any fear. I was playing with the boys, and I wasn’t afraid to get into a scuffle.”
Even though she would go on to play for the outdoor select soccer team J.B. Marine in St. Louis, much of what she learned about soccer was from indoor soccer. “My parents would take me and my friends to St. Louis Ambush games on the weekend. I always looked forward to those games.” It was watching players like Mark Moser and Daryl Doran on the smaller indoor field where she continued to learn and perfect her short game. Even to this day, she admits she prefers to carry the ball into the midfield and engage with players. “Long-range passing is not my forte.”
Starting in 1999, Sauerbrunn would go on to work her way up through the Youth National Team ranks. A budding player that was also tracking alongside her in college and then eventually up to the U-23 Team was future star and teammate Ali Krieger. There were two National Team camps in 2008 where Sauerbrunn was able to show off her skills, eventually leading to her joining the USWNT in China for her first cap. The other player who earned her first cap that same game… Ali Krieger.
It was an interesting time in 2008 for the USWNT because the team just got assigned a new head coach, Pia Sundhage. “I remember a lot of players were concerned about trying to impress the new coach. It was an interesting two months.”
Pia’s first impression of Sauerbrunn wasn’t exactly what she was hoping for – she dropped back down the U-23s when the team got back from China. “(Pia) knew what she wanted out of her center backs, and I didn’t fit her style.”
However, Pia did bring her back two and a half years later. Unfortunately, it was a result of an injury to another player in training camp. It was a call that Sauerbrunn didn’t expect, and one that she almost missed. “I was about to walk into a movie, and I got a voicemail. I thought that I should probably check this.”
It was Pia asking if she can arrive at camp the next day. The camp decided who would make the World Cup qualifying 20-player roster in 2010. Pretty soon Sauerbrunn was in Mexico for World Cup qualifying. By the end of 2011, she was called up for every team roster, solidifying her spot on the team that would go on to win the Olympic Gold Medal the following summer.
Embracing the Pressure
Midfielder Sam Mewis has called Sauerbrunn her “moral compass.” It’s a label that gives her pause when it’s brought up. “Well, now I have to talk about myself which is always uncomfortable for me.” Despite being the center of an interview, Sauerbrunn is always exhibiting a team-first mentality. You could attribute it to her more reserved approach, but it’s another example of why she was chosen as captain of the team. She finally explains why Mewis might think this, “We see the game the same way. That we’re cogs of a bigger team.”
Sauerbrunn talks about how the team is made up of a variety of leaders, regardless of if they wear the captain’s armband or not. Each has a different approach to the team – all different functional cogs in the machine that is the team. Some function more as cheerleader types, others more as mentors. Her approach falls more into the latter category.
“My leadership style is more pulling someone to the side and having that one-on-one conversation. I’m a relationship person.”
The USWNT has a long history of excellence for multiple generations now. They won their first World Cup in 1991 and followed it up with three more and four Olympic gold medals. Year after year, the organization has continued to define women’s soccer across the globe, setting them apart from any other international team out there. And yet, it’s not easy being at the top – in fact, it might be the worst spot you could be in. When you play for the best team in the world, you are always playing with a target on your back. Everyone wants to take down Goliath.
“There are a lot of expectations for us. It’s a high-pressure environment.”
It’s hard enough to earn a spot on this team, but it’s even harder to stay on the team, as Sauerbrunn’s own experience has proven. You’re constantly fighting for minutes to compete; for those moments to represent your country and to carry on the USWNT legacy.
“We put a lot of pressure on ourselves every single day. At meetings, training, and weightlifting… we’re trying to be excellent in everything. That comes with intensity, passion, and pressure.”
Sauerbrunn shares a quote from former head coach Jill Ellis that perfectly explains the team’s mentality.
“Some teams visit pressure – but the U.S. Women’s National Team lives in pressure,” explains Ellis. You might think you can ride high being at the top, but it’s not always champagne celebrations.
She goes on to explain that the team works with sports psychologists to process this pressure in healthy ways. It’s why the team continues to be as successful as they are. It takes mental strength and focus that equally matches the physical fitness required to be the leader of the world. Leading isn’t easy. It’s why only four countries have ever won the Women’s World Cup, with the USMNT leading the pack with the most wins. It’s not always about being the most talented team – it comes down to not being afraid of the pressure. And Sauerbrunn and her teammates know how to face their fears. “We are comfortable being uncomfortable.”
Building Out from the Back
Harnessing pressure and channeling it into results is what makes the best leaders. Whether you are a leader in the board room or on the field as a center back, you are trying to prevent mistakes and lift up your teammates so they can all be better decision-makers. It’s often said that center backs are the spine of the team, which is why the phrase “building out from the back” – though commonly used to describe passing from the backline and pushing forward – is all too fitting.
Despite the USWNT being as successful as they have been for over 30 years, professional women’s soccer on the club side is still an area that hasn’t grown as rapidly as the men’s leagues. The NWSL is the MLS counterpart in women’s soccer but has struggled in recent years to gain the traction and lacks access on the broadcast side – though the NWSL Championship in Louisville last year was televised on CBS. Sauerbrunn hopes the league can be built up more.
In talking about how the league can grow, Sauerbrunn explains, “We need to continue to find new ownership groups that want to invest in women’s soccer. We need to keep looking for sponsorships and better T.V. broadcast deals. The product is great, we just need more people to see it. And hopefully, with more viewers, that will then attract more international players. Bringing in those international players and those new styles of play would just add to the excitement and be great for everybody.”
Whether it’s through bringing in international players or making sure every player’s voice on the team is heard, Sauerbrunn illustrates how essential it is to be an inclusive leader. She’s decisive in her words and succinct, but she never pretends to have all the answers. Her words and actions display a solutions-driven leader that’s keenly aware that you can make an impact no matter your role. “Maybe you’re not a starter. So what are you doing at practice or off the field to help the team?”
It’s been widely acknowledged and praised, but it’s worth repeating that St. Louis CITY SC is the first female-majority-owned franchise in professional sports, led by Carolyn Kindle Betz. As a fellow leader and captain, Sauerbrunn talks about the importance of young women that aspire to be seen as leaders on and off the field, like herself and Kindle Betz. How it’s important for others to take on the roles that are needed if we want the sport to continue to advance, even if they’re afraid of taking up that space.
“You deserve to be in those decision-making places. You are worthy and deserve to be there. More times than not, women feel like they aren’t qualified to be in that room. But how else are you going to learn unless you throw yourself into it.”
Becky Sauerbrunn is a testament to the adage that you don’t have to be the loudest voice in the room. Just like you don’t have to be the biggest and fastest center back. And even though it can be tough, you have to be fearless in life. You can’t be afraid to play against the boys, and you especially can’t be afraid to move into a space and take advantage of an opportunity when it’s up for the taking.