It’s impossible to have a conversation about the best defenders in the history of women’s soccer without including Becky Sauerbrunn. And yet if you were to ask her who she considers to be at the top, her name wouldn’t even be in contention.
Sauerbrunn’s humble nature may in fact be the very reason she is among the best. It’s what pushes her to be better, to work harder and constantly analyze every detail. In her mind there is always room for improvement.
At 34 years old Sauerbrunn has been around women’s soccer longer than most. She’s seen teammates come and go and has had her fair share of coaches, but since the early days of the National Women’s Soccer League she has set herself apart as arguably the foremost centerback.
For three-consecutive seasons she was recognized as the Defender of the Year and was a contender in every other, all the while she was named to each and every NWSL Best XI in each year since it’s beginning in 2013.
The constant presence of Sauerbrunn is one that has stood the test of time, each season, regardless of the circumstances her statistics remain at the forefront, and this year was no exception. In the past four seasons she has led the league with a 83.65 percent passing rate and a tackle rate of 74.76 percent and consistently finishes in the top five of the league in each.
But as Sauerbrunn frequently shares, it’s more about those around her than her as an individual.
“I’m only as good as the players around me,” Sauerbrunn said. “And when everyone around me possesses such high quality, has chemistry and are willing to communicate we’re at our best, so any individual accolades are a reflection of the unit and the team I’m on.”
This season, that team displayed a defensive standard that was near the top of the league, with ten shutouts and the second-least goals allowed, only behind the 2019 NWSL champion North Carolina Courage.
It’s the innate nature of Sauebrunn to point to those around her, focusing on how the team performed, rather than individuals, something her centerback counterpart Rachel Corsie is all too familiar with.
“I think she is very modest, and that is very humbling for those of us around her everyday," Corsie said. "To me, she is one of the very best and what she has achieved in her career to date is absolutely phenomenal. I am very grateful for the opportunity to play alongside her."
For the past two years the defensive centerback duo has for the most part remained unchanged, coupled with the goalkeeping of Nicole Barnhart and the sweeping of midfielder Desiree Scott in front it’s easy to see why Sauerbrunn attributes her individual accolades to the team as a whole.
“In the past two seasons, and even going back further than that, we’ve had a rotating cast of characters in the defense, but the spine has remained fairly solid and similar,” Sauerbrunn said. “Being recognized as a top defender is truly a testament to the work we all put in to be tough to break down and ultimately prevent goals.”
Outside of preventing goals, it is difficult to fully explain why Sauerbrunn is among the best in the history of the game, because when she’s doing her job correctly you hardly even notice her or the teammates that work alongside her.
So, how do you evaluate her quality as a top centerback? Perhaps, looking at the rise of teammates she’s played next to across her career gives better insight into the intangibles that make her so solid.
Over five years between the national team and club it’s been a revolving door, of sorts, for Sauebrunn with her centerback pairings. The list consists mostly of younger and less-experienced players, including Julie Ertz, Abby Dahlkemper and Tierna Davidson, all of whom have become top centerbacks in their own right while playing next to and learning from Sauerbrunn.
While she hasn’t had the fortune of playing in a match next to Sauebrunn, defender Gaby Vincent has spent the last season training day in and day out next to her with Utah Royals FC, studying under the best and in doing so becoming a young protégé.
“When I saw her on TV I thought ‘Wow, she does everything perfectly,’ but getting the chance to train with her you realize just how much work she puts in to make it look that easy,” Vincent said. “She has this unmatched ability to connect all the dots, when she messes up she corrects it and she learns from every decision she makes and makes me want to do the same.”
So, why does Sauerbrunn deserve to be in the conversation for the top defenders? It’s difficult to describe, it’s a feeling of calmness when watching her play, even when the best forwards in the world attempt to break her down. It’s knowing that she will give every ounce to her team on and off the field and it’s the sense of respect when she turns individual awards into team wins.
Becky Sauerbrunn is one of the best defenders in women’s soccer, but she’ll never agree to that. And that’s alright. Because her reputation and career tells otherwise.