WINNIPEG, Manitoba – United States women’s national team defender Becky Sauerbrunn describes it as her “oh-crap speed,” but it hardly looks like there is any panic involved.
Sauerbrunn used the phrase to detail her sliding tackle in the 63rd minute of a scoreless draw with Sweden on Friday. Sauerbrunn had recovered from a misstep that she blamed herself for, tracking back to help out fellow center back Julie Johnston, who was in a 2-v-1 situation against one of the world’s best strikers, Lotta Schelin.
It was the second time in as many games that Sauerbrunn found within herself that blistering speed that she describes with such a humanizing adjective. On Monday, she closed ground from behind on Sam Kerr, one of the tournament’s fastest players, to turn a one-on-one with goalkeeper Hope Solo into a shot blocked by Sauerbrunn, saving a potential goal in a 3-1 win over Australia.
Sauerbrunn has been the United States’ best player through two games at the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup and a microcosm of the story of the Americans’ tournament thus far.
For all the talk about the United States’ depth at the forward position and all the wondering of what Abby Wambach’s role would be and all the questioning about Alex Morgan’s health, it is the defensive unit that has stood out through two games of what the Americans hope will be seven in Canada.
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Meghan Klingenberg’s game-saving, goal-line clearance in the 77th minute of a scoreless draw with Sweden on Friday epitomized exactly that. So too did Solo’s world-class saves in Monday’s win against Australia (“freaking huge” saves, as Megan Rapinoe called them).
But the small nuances of defending aren’t lost on this United States team, anchored by 30-year-old Sauerbrunn and 23-year-old Julie Johnston, who went from initially being cut from the World Cup qualifying roster in October to being a crucial piece of the United States’ quest for its first World Cup title in 16 years.
Johnston’s emergence out of almost nowhere gives the United States a defensive anchor to build around for the foreseeable future, especially with 40-year-old Christie Rampone – the last active player from that 1999 team – likely playing in her last major tournament.
But more importantly and more incredibly, Johnston – not Rampone – is the player next to Sauerbrunn that U.S. coach Jill Ellis feels can lead the U.S. to the Promised Land.
“I said to both of them after the game, I thought they did very, very well and I said this is going to pay dividends for us, because we need that,” Ellis said of Johnston and Sauerbrunn. “A lot of teams aren’t getting tested as much, but we’re getting tested and it’s good for us. It’s good for our younger players to gain that experience. It was good for Morgan Brian to start a game today in a World Cup. Those are things that you hope will pay off longer on.”
Johnston’s quick rise through the ranks came initially at the expense of injuries to Rampone and Whitney Engen, but the young-gun Johnston never looked back, exuding confidence from the start and scoring in three straight matches, including in the Algarve Cup final win over France.
Ellis spoke frequently this week and throughout the spring about the Catch-22 that Johnston previously faced. The only thing Johnston lacked, Ellis maintains, was experience. The only way to gain experience was to play, which Johnston wasn’t doing regularly for the United States until March.
Johnston showed signs of nerves in the World Cup opener against Australia on Monday, but on Friday she proved again that she plays beyond her years and caps (Friday was only her 14th match with the national team). These few months were no baptism by fire.
“I thought she was excellent,” Sauerbrunn said of her fellow center back. “I thought they gave us a lot to deal with and I thought she handled herself really well. She showed a lot of confidence on the ball and I think she is going to get more and more comfortable as the tournament goes on.”
Sauerbrunn has seamlessly stepped into a leadership role in defense with Rampone on the bench. Sauerbrunn, who turned 30 last Saturday, had only played one World Cup game – albeit a semifinal in 2011 – prior to this tournament. But she’s as savvy and well-positioned as she is athletic, a similar mold to Rampone and a player who has taken on a similar role to the one the team’s longtime captain held.
Johnston, Sauerbrunn, Klingenberg and Ali Krieger make up the defensive unit in front of Solo. They don’t often get much credit, especially with the star-power the United States boasts up top.
But through two games at this World Cup, players lining up at forward are yet to score. It’s defense (and some magic from Megan Rapinoe on Monday) that has earned the United States 4 points from two games. The U.S. will hope that the old adage that defense wins championships will hold true.
“I was just doing my job,” said Klingenberg of her goal-line save.
Spoken like a true defender.