The 2021 edition of SheBelieves Cup starts on February 18 in Orlando, Florida, and the U.S. women's national team look to defend their title as they kick off their campaign against Canada, followed by games against Brazil and Argentina.
The tournament is both the first major test of the year for head coach Vlatko Andonovski and his squad and a dress rehearsal for what's to come later in the year. "Each game will present its own unique challenges and the matches are not only a step up in competition from January, but as I've said before, are extremely valuable as a test run for group play at the Olympics," said Andonovski at the beginning of the month after announcing the squad, which features 18 players from the NWSL, and five from Europe, including Man City's Sam Mewis and Manchester United's Christen Press. Dress rehearsal or not, as far as Andonovsky is concerned, there is no room for complacency. "Anyone that comes that comes on the national team, we have high expectations and that's not a secret, it's the best team in the world," said the Macedonian-American manager.
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This is Andonovsky's biggest challenge: When you manage a squad as talented and powerful as the USWNT, the objective is to not just to reach the top but to stay there.
The journey, therefore, begins with someone who can lead and show you the way, and in this team, that's Becky Sauerbrunn.
"Sometimes I look to Becky like my moral compass," said Sam Mewis, the Man City star and the 2020 U.S. Soccer Female Player of the Year. "Like, whatever she is doing is what I know is right, so I should probably do the same thing."
Sauerbrunn, the no-nonsense, blue-collar style center back from Portland Thorns, hears this and her first instinct is to disregard it. Not because she doesn't appreciate it, but just because she hates the spotlight. But what's more, instead of responding to the praise, she'd rather talk about Mewis herself.
"I love Sam. I think she is basically what a national team player should be on and off the field," says Sauerbrunn. "So if she said something that's incredibly nice, I am very flattered and yes, I go by moral compass and make my decisions based on what's best for the team and a lot of the time that takes me out of the spotlight and puts other people into the spotlight and I am more than happy to do that. For me, it's just about finding everyone's strengths and promoting those so that we're minimizing our weaknesses."
This is who Sauerbrunn is. Uncomplicated. Introverted. Strong.
But within this calm exterior, there is a warrior on the pitch. There are not many players who embody the meaning of leadership as much as her. She is relentlessly selfless and hard working but most importantly, she sees the game as a pedestal to raise not herself, but her teammates.
Her accomplishments are basically proof of this. She's won two World Cup titles, an Olympic gold medal and an NWSL trophy. She's been named the league's defender of the year four times and has nearly 200 appearances for the national team.
Not bad for someone who just enjoys peace and quiet and a good sci-fi book.
"I'm actually reading The Captain Class by Sam Walker," says Sauerbrunn. "Vlatko actually gave it to me. That's been really cool."
The book aims to figure out the connection between some of the greatest sports teams in the history of sports and concluding that their success comes down to one player, their captain. What's supposedly meant to be a source of inspiration for Sauerbrunn, this gift from Andonovsky is also a symbol of deserved recognition. Both know each other well from their days at FC Kansas City, the former NWSL team who was an original founder of the league and won two titles before ceasing operations in 2017 due to new ownership. Andonovsky was head coach and Sauerbrunn his captain.
"I think something really special happened in Kansas City when I started working with Vlatko and the team that he put together and the culture and the way that we play soccer," reflects Sauerbrunn. "So when Kansas City dissolved after five years I was really upset for all the players but also because I wasn't going to work with Vlatko anymore. So the fact that he's now the national team coach, I am very grateful. I think he's done a great job for however months long he's been in this role, and I think he has a lot to offer this team and I think he can take this team to new heights."
Andonovsky's respect for Sauerbrunn is just as high and making her the captain was a decision that had to be approved more by Sauerbrunn than anyone else. After consulting with other senior members of the team, Andonovsky basically offered her the role of captain and at first, she wasn't sure. "This role carries a lot of weight, you have a lot of responsibility, you're captain of one the best teams in sports history," says Sauerbrunn. "So that carries a bit of a burden too, and this team, as I am sure you know, is full of characters, full of really strong, intelligent, opinionated women and to try and gather all that energy and harness it for good, to make sure everyone is on the same page, a lot of that falls to the leadership of the team and I am now part of that."
In the end, she accepted, knowing that she can take the role and guide and steady the ship. She is not the loudest voice, she is not the most aggressive, but she is the steadiest. The USWNT is a collection of sharks and she is the ocean in which they hunt. But she is also the fact checker, the one who looks over a decision more than once to make sure everything has been figured out. It's ok to make a mistake, but for Sauerbrunn, carelessness is not acceptable. "Sometimes being a leader, a reluctant leader, that's ok. It's ok to be a little reluctant because that means you're always going to second guess all of your decisions and you're always going to be working to be a better leader. I knew that about myself. I'm never going to be satisfied with how I lead, or the player that I am, or the person that I am. So, if Vlatko thought it was a good decision, and he received input from the other players and other staff members and they felt that it was a good decision, then I would say, 'yeah, I would love to take this on.' There are going to be tough days...but overwhelming feeling? What an honor."
In terms of the squad itself, Sauerbrunn, who has seen her fair share of American talent throughout the years, is excited about this particular roster for SheBelieves Cup. "One of the advantages of being on the U.S. team is that the depth of the player pool is so much more than just 23 players" she says. "So I don't envy Vlatko or the coaching staff and their decisions to bring it down to an Olympic roster of 18 people . Luckily at SheBelieves you're gonna get a few more [roster spots] to play around with, but the team is always going to be strong. No matter what."
One of the players she is excited about is Catarina Macario, the Brazilian-born American star who's had a crazy January. Last month, she forewent her senior year at Stanford University, signed with the giant club Lyon, debuted for the national team and scored her first goal in the 6-0 rout of Colombia and this past weekend, replaced the French great Amandine Henry to make her professional debut with her new club.
"She's got some GREAT feet," smiles Sauerbrunn. "I watched her when she was playing at Stamford and was playing like an attacking midfielder but for the national team she's been playing a post-up nine, and it's been really great seeing her back to goal. I had to defend her a bunch these last few camps and the things she can do...she's a special player."
There goes Sauerbrunn again, putting the spotlight on someone else. That's how she pushes this team, by highlighting the excellence of the squad and helping them succeed.
But if we go back Sam Mewis's words once again, the squad and coaching staff know that without their moral compass, without their captain, the road to victory would be a steep, pitch dark path.
Sauerbrunn is the light that helps them get there.