U.S. women's national team captain Becky Sauerbrunn is out for the 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup. The center back has been dealing with a foot injury since April while with Portland Thorns FC. She released a statement on social media, confirming earlier reporting by The Athletic of her eventual absence on the soon-to-be-named 23-player roster.
Sauerbrunn is a two-time World Cup champion, Olympic Gold and Bronze Medalist, three-time NWSL Champion, and has 216 caps with the national team. Those are just the standout accolades for an individual who has long been looked to as an example for teammates on and off the pitch. Praise for the player has typically gone beyond the not only her defensive abilities on the pitch. She's endeared for her ability to think of her teammates first, pursuing equitable rights for years, all while still shutting down attackers in games.
"Heartbroken isn't even the half of it. But that's sports for you and that's life, really. I had hoped and worked and hoped some more to make it back in time to help lead the team at this World Cup, but after lots of discussion, unfortunately, there's just too much variability in my return to play timeline," Sauerbrunn wrote on social media.
"It's been an honor to work and play alongside this incredible group of athletes. They have my unwavering support. And, more importantly, they have my unyielding belief. This program has always been about the collective and I have no doubt that the players on the final roster have everything they need—in their feet, their heads and their hearts—to bring our fifth trophy home.
To my teammates, I love you. Please, take a minute to enjoy this moment and appreciate everything that brought you here—every second of hard work and every bit of good luck—and then get back to work and go win the whole f---ing thing!"
Sauerbrunn's represented a USWNT generation
Perhaps the most obvious evidence of her impact on U.S. soccer culture can be seen in the public reaction to the announcement of her missing the World Cup. Sauerbrunn's athletic ability, professionalism, and entire persona have long captivated fans, critics, and media for years. Myself included.
This is a player who took time to answer my silly little questions for years, and I just didn't want to believe that a player, who at 38 years of age is almost certainly nearing the end of her career, just had a massive opportunity pass her by because of cruel soccer fate.
I'll never forget the moment in 2017 when the team lost the SheBelieves Cup and Sauerbrunn was the first national team player to take the time to make sure I was seen in a mixed zone, surrounded by men who had occupied the media space longer than I. It's a little thing, but it's the kind of little thing that countless people in the game have stories about her doing. It was a terrible tournament for the squad, they had maybe one respectable performance and closed out the competition in last place all while trying to implement a three-back system under Jill Ellis. The formation change was a bit of a reaction to the team's historic elimination at the 2016 Olympics. After being unable to unlock Sweden's organized shape, I wanted to know what would the team do to make sure they can always be on the front foot?
It was only my second game covering the national team, untied to a major outlet, and the idea of asking a major player about her coach, a new system, and what comes next was nerve-wracking. But Sauerbrunn kept it transparent and honest. "It's still a work in progress. I'm not sure what Jill's plan is, but I wouldn't be surprised if we keep working on it," she answered me. "I'm excited to keep working on it. I think when we finally get it down it could be a really good formation on this team."
Ultimately it was an adjustment new to everyone on the team. Later that year, the coaching staff eventually was saved by Crystal Dunn's explosion as a player and her ability to excel everywhere on the pitch, so they stuck her at left back and recognized Ertz had changed her club's season by playing as a midfielder, so why not for the national team? But in 2017 there were unknowns about what the team was going to look like and I had just been on the beat for months. Sauerbrunn could have ignored me, she could have blown off a difficult question, instead she acknowledged and took the question in stride.
And you can see that same spirit in her recent statement. An effort to refocus on the path forward again after and incredible disappointment that left me, and most of the American soccer world feeling like there's nowhere to go but down. Phone calls have been made, emails read, and players know who is going and who will not. Reality has set in. Sauerbrunn's statement touches on that reality, accepts it and then turns to motivation, just another clear example of how she will still impact the team.
It's the little details that separate the regulars from the greats. It's processing the sore losses when you don't get to celebrate the trophy lift and keeping the same energy off the pitch. Those details make Sauerbrunn such a unique leader and player. She's a player who has captured what this generation of the USWNT has been all about on and off the field. She's been at the front of fighting for her teammates for titles, social change, anti-racism, LGBTQ+ causes, litigation against U.S. Soccer, and eventually negotiating a historic collective bargaining agreement between the USWNT, USSF, and the USMNT.
And for this generation of fans, and the people around the game, we all watched as she became a leader on the national team before our very eyes. We were going to tune into what was supposed to be her final World Cup. But that's not how things have panned out. As Sauerbrunn said, "that's life, really."
She will still rehab from her foot injury, still have club responsibilities, and may even appear in post-World Cup international windows before she decides what ultimately is best for her. Along the way, we will still be watching to find out what the ending actually is.
Now what for the USWNT?
Whatever the outcome, current players participating in this World Cup will have opportunities in front of them due to the years-long fight for a CBA that offers equal pay, and a tournament that offers increased prize money. It's another component that also stings. For Sauerbrunn, the equity fight that she helped battle for so long, means she won't be present to harvest that which she sown.
Sauerbrunn's national team absence is an enormous hole to fill both in morale and on the field. Of course, there will be players to provide leadership among Crystal Dunn, Alex Morgan, Alyssa Naeher, and others who have played in previous World Cups. The captain's armband may even pass from player to player throughout the tournament.
Though the roster has yet to be announced, there will be players to fulfill game-day duties., and Alana Cook has been the constant figure among a rotating cast of injuries at the position. The duo will be relied upon as the U.S. face early tests against Vietnam, Portugal, and the Netherlands.
The team will kick off their World Cup journey on July 21 in New Zealand and face Vietnam in their first Group E match.