Usually after a US women’s national team game, we like to pick it apart a bit, look for the fault lines and the strengths. But only one thing has occupied my mind since I finished up the recap last night, and that was Becky Sauerbrunn nearly got a goal.
To recap: The United States played Mexico last night in the first group game of their World Cup qualifying bid. The US was up 5-0 and Sauerbrunn decided it was fine if she stretched her legs a bit. She took a jaunt down the left flank and was in perfect position to jump on an attempted clear out of the box. Her angle wasn’t the greatest, but for a moment, I really thought it’s all happening! I thought Sauerbrunn would blast it in and blow the roof off the stadium and we’d get a repeat of this goal celebration for FC Kansas City (RIP).
But she made the smart play: with Alex Morgan just feet away, she laid it off, and Morgan made it six for the US. Afterwards, you can see Morgan grinning, slightly bewildered, asking Sauerbrunn “Where’d you come from?”
The reactions on social media were pretty unanimous. How sick would it have been if Becky had scored? Man, she should’ve taken the shot.
Everyone loves defender goals. There’s just something special about them, particularly if they come from open play and not a set piece or a penalty kick. Center backs are the ones who aren’t supposed to take risks, who don’t get to rock highlight reels with flashy moves. One of the best signs a game is going well is if you don’t notice the center backs. They’re supposed to be disciplined and cerebral and calm and if from time to time Becky Sauerbrunn makes a sortie up the field, you can bet it’s because that’s what the game needs at the moment and not due to a whim. But the opportunities for her to simply unleash in front of goal are ephemeral, the most fleeting of moments in a long and steady career.
Sauerbrunn has actually mentioned before that her teammates floated a theoretical plan to get her a goal for the USWNT. She told Neil Morris on the Inverted Triangle podcast, “There was talk a little bit ago about the girls giving me kind of a pity PK, you know if we were up in a game, and like, oh let’s just give one to Becky. But I refuse to take one of those because if I score a goal I actually want it to be something that I earned.”
What a particularly Sauerbrunn-ian sentiment. Keep your pity penalties. Becky Sauerbrunn wants to score from the thick of things, getting jostled by bodies in a scrum or one timing the ball. She wants to have paid a fair price for that tally on the score sheet.
Last night in Cary, she set herself up for it. She knew her position would be covered and she made the run and got the ball. She had every right to just hoof that ball at the net (knowing her, probably she would have tried a neat placement instead) and hope for the best. Maybe goal differential might come to matter later in the tournament, but with Panama and Trinidad & Tobago on the horizon, it’s fair to say the United States will probably outscore everyone by a double digit sum total. And still, literally feet away from goal, she made the smart, unselfish play.
By now there have been plenty of paeans written to Becky Sauerbrunn: consummate professional, the thinking player’s player, the rock. It feels like she’s been a cornerstone of the USWNT program forever, although perhaps that’s an artifact of the last couple of years feeling like decades. Still, the concept of a Sauerbrunn goal seems to carry more pathos than just any random defender scoring. Something about a reward for a faithful servant who has never asked for more in 144 caps and counting? Something particular to Sauerbrunn herself, as she has one of the most well-respected reputations in the sport? Maybe a tiny bit of fan pettiness over Sauerbrunn no longer wearing the captain’s armband?
Lately, conversation about Sauerbrunn has started to include words like “twilight” when talking about her career, and as disconcerting as it is to contemplate, the chances for her to get that WNT goal are dwindling. There might not be a better chance than at this tournament - after this the team will play opponents in Europe, and then there’s SheBelieves, and then the World Cup.
But then again, perhaps Sauerbrunn herself would shrug at the notion she has her best chance to score now, when the US has massive advantages over the other teams in their group. She doesn’t want a goal handed to her on a platter. She wants it to be something that she earned. Of course, that’s exactly why she deserves a goal, and the spotlight, however brief, and a SportsCenter top 10 moment, and a twitter trend.
Man, that would’ve been so dope if Becky scored. She should’ve taken the shot.