How ‘heartbroken’ USWNT will cope with captain’s World Cup absence

Alex Morgan got the unexpected call, and heard the devastating news, and immediately had to sit down. It stopped her cold amid preparations for her fourth Women’s World Cup. Becky Sauerbrunn phoned Morgan to deliver it first-hand: Sauerbrunn, the universally adored U.S. women’s national team captain, 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’s just had a huge impact on me and so many players.”

And Morgan wasn’t alone.

“We’re all gutted for Becky,” head coach Vlatko Andonovski said.

“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 U.S. Soccer revealed a Women’s World Cup roster that, for the first time since 2007, won’t include Sauerbrunn. And they spoke about a 38-year-old who is far more than just a rock-solid center back. They spoke about a leader whom teammates have previously called their “backbone” and “moral compass.” They spoke about a friend whose presence will be impossible to replace.

“Losing her is bigger than just her play on the field,” Dunn said. “Her ability to gather the group, and really lead us in the right direction at all times, is something that we are gonna greatly miss.”

Sauerbrunn has been a USWNT starter for roughly a decade now. She was one of a handful of women who bridged eras and generations, who connected 2012 Olympic gold to 2015 World Cup to 2019 World Cup to the present. Along the way, she became one of the best defenders in the history of the sport. She played 200-plus international games, and never scored a goal but never cared.

She was exceedingly humble, endearingly selfless. She even considered asking U.S. Soccer not to celebrate her 200th cap, because “it’s not about me, it’s also about the people that got me to this moment,” she said in April. She prioritizes others over herself, and that’s why those others are now feeling for her.

“She’s always thinking about the team first,” said Dunn, who’s communicated with Sauerbrunn over the past week. “And I kinda had to tell her, ‘It’s OK to think about your situation, and not only care about the team at this moment.'”

By her mid-30s, Sauerbrunn was already a legend, an icon whom girls across America idolized. Girma was one of those girls. In 2016, ahead of the Under-17 World Cup, Girma filled out a biographical questionnaire and named Sauerbrunn as her favorite player. A few years later, she began to realize that her idol was also an incredible, down-to-earth human being. Sauerbrunn hopped on a Zoom call with Girma’s U.S. U-20 team to answer questions. She eventually helped integrate 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 welcome people in.”

Sauerbrunn had very intentionally tried to create that warm, inclusive environment. It went hand-in-hand with her dual role as captain of the team and president of the USWNT Players Association. In the meal room, and in downtime, she’d read her books, and talk about her cats, and unleash her witty humor — “she’s very much herself, she’s very funny,” Girma said. In meeting rooms and on contentious calls, she also helped lead the push for equal pay.

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

“Every time I’ve worked with Becky, I have appointed her or helped appoint her as a captain of the team,” said Andonovski, who first coached Sauerbrunn in 2013 in Kansas City. “And the reason why is 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 her 200th cap, Andonovski shared, “there is a certain ceremony that we do that is more intimate, just for the team. It was amazing to hear how the players talked about Becky, and how much she means to them, and how much impact she has had on the game globally … and how much she has impacted their careers.”

“And obviously as a player, she’s incredible,” Girma added. “That too.”

She’s an incredible player at a shallow position, and so, she leaves a void that Girma and Alana Cook will attempt to fill. Behind them, there is versatile reserve Emily Sonnett. And behind Sonnett? Nobody. Andonovski indicated Wednesday that Julie Ertz, a former center back alongside Sauerbrunn, could fill in if need be. But Sauerbrunn’s injury will have a depth-chart domino effect.

The impact of her absence, though, will extend far beyond the depth chart.

“She’s a prime example of just how one person should carry themselves, not just on the field but through life,” Smith said. “So, not having Becky there, it’s gonna be different, it’s gonna be a challenge, and it’s gonna require a lot of players to step up.”

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

And as for who’ll wear the captain’s armband in her stead?

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