Just nine minutes into the U.S. women’s national team’s 2–1 win over Spain on Monday, U.S. soccer fans saw something completely alien to them: a Becky Sauerbrunn mistake at a World Cup.
While under pressure from Spain’s Lucía García, Sauerbrunn fired off an errant pass that gifted possession to Jenni Hermoso, who finished coolly over American goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher and turned what had looked to be another smooth glide for the U.S. into a bumpy grind that it was fortunate to escape. The play wasn’t all her fault—she received a pass from Naeher that did her no favors—but Sauerbrunn owned the mistake after the game, and her relief was palpable when it was over and the U.S. advanced. She clearly had never experienced anything like it either.
Sauerbrunn was the best player in the world at the 2015 World Cup—sorry Carli Lloyd—but because she made it look so effortless, she rarely got the recognition she deserved. Her center back partner, Julie Ertz, was the one named to various teams of the tournament by both fans and FIFA itself. Ertz was even shortlisted for the Golden Ball award. And she was good. The U.S. allowed three goals all tournament, two of them in the final after building a four-goal lead in the first 20 minutes. You can’t do that if everyone in the back line isn’t playing at a high level.
But part of the reason Ertz was so good was that she was the perfect, showier foil for Sauerbrunn. Ertz played like a supernova, exploding into moments of contention and using her unlimited energy to win the ball. Sauerbrunn was like a black hole, a subtler form of devastation. Opponents would bring the ball too near and their attacking prospects would disappear, tipping over the event horizon never to be seen again. By the time they realized what was happening, it was too late.
It was a glorious partnership. Ertz would use her energy to sow chaos, and Sauerbrunn would use her preternatural reading of the game to react first to that chaos, box it up, and usher it away from goal. Out of sight, out of mind, particularly of the post-tournament award voters.
In this World Cup, Ertz is playing higher up the pitch as a defensive midfielder. Sauerbrunn and her new partner Abby Dahlkemper have to choose between moving forward to clean up behind Ertz or staying back to mark the opposing forwards. Dahlkemper is an extremely qualified replacement on the U.S. back line—she’s a two-time Best XI selection in the NWSL, its Defender of the Year in 2017, and the best-passing American center back—but their partnership lacks the sublime alchemy that Ertz and Sauerbrunn had in 2015.
Sauerbrunn and Dahlkemper both tend toward reading and reacting; they prefer to position themselves to be hard to beat, rather than lunging directly into the fray, and that can leave room for quick-thinking, fast-playing opponents to generate chances that could have been snuffed out by a more aggressive player. The one time Spain got to strike quickly in the Round of 16, it scored. Every time it had to assemble its own chance, Sauerbrunn and Dahlkemper were there to smother it.
France will have noticed how the U.S. back line can be rattled by heavy pressure, and it has attackers all over the pitch who can fashion their own chances. France also has the sort of team speed that can turn the U.S.’s read-and-react defense into a high-wire act. One missed read, one late reaction, and Valérie Gauvin has brought the ball down and played Kadidiatou Diani through on goal.
Sauerbrunn has lost just enough quickness that it’s starting to eat away at the edges of her game. You might think this wouldn’t matter, that the way she plays is so mental it might be easy to overcome. It’s not like she was Florence Griffith Joyner to begin with. But the world’s more cerebral athletes are just as reliant on their speed and strength as its Bo Jacksons. Their games have been calibrated to the physical gifts they have. When Xavi lost a step, it was clear that his teams weren’t as effective anymore. France is likely to start either two or three attackers who are a decade younger than Sauerbrunn. Whatever speed she may have lost sure would be nice to have in Friday’s game.
Which might raise the question: Should she even play against France? No other U.S. defender has been directly responsible for a goal this tournament, and she brings neither Ertz’s range nor Dahlkemper’s passing to the field. But Sauerbrunn is indispensable to the U.S. defense’s speed of thought, a coach on the field for an inexperienced midfield and its offensive-minded fullbacks. She makes the whole team better, and that added value should keep her place secure.
It’s not just the colossal mistakes Sauerbrunn has to avoid against France. It’s all of them. If she falls behind the play, she won’t catch back up. For the U.S. defense to hold up against the French attack, she’ll have to be perfect. It wouldn’t be the first time.