USWNT gives first glimpse of plan to plug hole left by Becky Sauerbrunn’s injury

Alex Morgan had to sit down.

She had just spoken to her friend and longtime US women’s national teammate Becky Sauerbrunn and learned that the stalwart defender would not be making the World Cup this summer.

Sauerbrunn, the captain and fearless leader of the USWNT, was recently sidelined after suffering a foot injury with the Portland Thorns.

On Wednesday, US coach Vlatko Andonovski announced the 23 players who will travel to Australia and New Zealand and attempt to make history as the first squad to win three consecutive World Cup titles when the tournament begins on July 20. From this group, 14 players will be taking part in their first World Cup. And while there are veterans like Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, Kelley O’Hara and Julie Ertz on the team, Sauerbrunn’s absence leaves a gaping void.

“Not only is Becky a huge presence on the field and a leader on the field, she’s also a person who holds people accountable,” said Morgan, who told reporters Wednesday that she was only the second person to do so informed Sauerbrunn about their news. “She raises the standards on every team she plays on and having played with her for 12-13 years I have a lot of respect for her.”

“When I received this news I had to sit down for a while because honestly I was shocked and so heartbroken for her but also for me and this team because of the huge impact she had on me and so many players.”

[USWNT player-by-player guide: Get to know all 23 players going to World Cup]

“Inconsolable” was the word of the day when it came to Sauerbrunn. Every player who spoke about the status of their captain used it to describe their feelings.

“It hurts,” said Crystal Dunn, who plays with Sauerbrunn for the Thorns. “She always thinks of the team first and I kind of had to tell her, ‘It’s okay to think about your situation and not just worry about the team in that moment because at the end of the day we’re all human.’ ‘

“It’s something she really wanted to be a part of and I know she’s feeling bad. She is someone who will be greatly missed.”

Andonovski, who coached Sauerbrunn when she played for Kansas City from 2013 to 2017, said he was “disappointed” that he couldn’t include her in the roster.

“If there was someone in a relationship who wanted Becky in that roster, it’s me,” Anodnovski said.

USA vs. the World: What will it take to stop USWNT at FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023?

USA vs. the World: What will it take to stop USWNT at FIFA Women's World Cup 2023?

How does Andonovski plan to replace her? Sauerbrunn would have been the oldest (38) and most capped (216) players in that squad. Now the defense doesn’t have many experienced players or World Cup experience. Andonvoski also opted not to bring in Tierna Davidson, who played at the 2019 World Cup and 2021 Olympics and would have been the logical swap.

Instead, he will rely on Naomi Girma (15 caps, first World Cup) – who would start alongside Sauerbrunn anyway – as well as Alana Cook and Emily Sonnett. Cook is an accomplished and capable defender with 24 caps, her first major tournament appearance. Sonnett now brings some experience to the table, having competed at the 2019 World Cup and the 2021 Olympics. She is a versatile player who can play as a full-back, centre-back and add depth as a defensive midfielder, but centre-back is not her forte.

Another option is always Ertz, who played for the USWNT as a central defender during their quest for a World Championship title in 2015. She also played that position in 2012 when she led the Americans to an U-20 World Cup.

“This is on our minds and we will examine this option,” said Andonovski.

[USWNT 2023 World Cup roster: By the numbers]

As for the captain’s armband, the USWNT has no shortage of leaders. Morgan said she’s already spoken to other veterans like Rapinoe about bringing the group, which ranges in age from “18 to Pinoe,” together, “about how we can all come together and be incredibly flexible as we go through this.” (By the way, Rapinoe turns 38 on July 5, just before the tournament begins.)

Morgan and Rapinoe have worn the armband before. Ertz and Lindsey Horan did it too. Andonovski said, “Becky will always be our captain,” but also said that he and his staff had “discussed the issue extensively.” They haven’t spoken to the team about it yet and won’t be making an announcement until then.

“Losing them is more important than just their game on the field,” said Dunn, who knows she has to improve even if she doesn’t get made captain. “Your ability to bring the group together and really guide us in the right direction at all times will be greatly missed.”

“…And I think everything I’ve learned from Becky is about being the best possible player. And that doesn’t just mean being on the field, it’s also encouraging your teammates.” [off it], which means giving advice when you think it’s right, and overall just being the best version of yourself in that environment. That’s something I learned from Becky and I hope to do my best to lead the group at this World Cup.”

Laken Litman covers college football, college basketball and soccer for FOX Sports. She previously wrote for Sports Illustrated, USA Today and The Indianapolis Star. She is the author of Strong Like a Woman, which was released in Spring 2022 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Title IX. Follow her on Twitter @LakenLitman.

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