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Becky Sauerbrunn reflective as US sets sights on World Cup

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To hear Becky Sauerbrunn reference the “twilight” of her career is a bit unsettling. It’s abundantly clear from watching the 32-year-old defender on the field that she’s still at her peak.

But Sauerbrunn is thinking about a legacy as the U.S. national team readies for World Cup qualifying this fall. If the defending champions make the field for women’s soccer’s premier event in France next year, it will be her third World Cup.

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For Sauerbrunn, that legacy means using her voice to effect change. It includes her team’s public push for equitable pay – which culminated with a new contract last April with U.S. Soccer.

And more recently it includes her effort to send a team of underprivileged girls to the Street Child World Cup in Moscow this summer.

“I’ve been given a platform and I want to do good with it. I’ve been playing sort of in the twilight of my career and I’d really like to leave the game better than when I found it,” she said.

Sauerbrunn spent the beginning of the year recovering from a foot injury. She made her first appearances of the season in a two-game series against Mexico, coming in as a sub in the opening game, a 4-1 U.S. victory, then starting the second, a 6-2 win on Sunday.

“The stress reaction I had in my foot is better. I’ve been getting MRIs and it’s healing, which is great,” she said. “I really feel like I’m coming back healthy and now it’s about getting back into soccer form.”

A center back, Sauerbrunn helped anchor the stellar backline that was key to the team’s title run at the 2015 World Cup in Canada. The difference this time around is that the United States won’t have goalkeeper Hope Solo, who set records during her lengthy career but left the team on bad terms following the 2016 Olympics in Rio.

The search for the team’s new goalkeeper continues, with Jane Campbell of the Houston Dash getting the latest starting nod in Sunday’s friendly.

“We’re feeling really good,” Sauerbrunn said about the team’s mentality. “It’s unfortunate because we have quite a few injuries, so we’re missing four or five of our core players (including Tobin Heath and Julie Ertz). But what’s good about that is that it provides the opportunity for other players to show what they have and gain some valuable experience.”

Coach Jill Ellis continues to experiment with the backline although the dependable Sauerbrunn is a lock as a starter if she’s healthy. Crystal Dunn started as a fullback in Sunday’s game but moved up to an attacking position and Ellis indicated she liked versatility.

“I think overall what we’re looking for – these players obviously have to do the job defensively, but it’s also looking at what they can bring to our attack,” Ellis said.

For now Sauerbrunn is busy helping the Utah Royals open their first National Women’s Soccer League season. Sauerbrunn, a three-time NWSL Defender of the Year, played for FC Kansas City since the league’s inception in 2013 – but that team folded earlier this year and the players collectively went to the Royals.

The Royals will be looking for their first win of the season Saturday when they host the Chicago Red Stars.

She’s also lending her voice to raising funds for the Street Child World Cup team. The event in Moscow prior to the men’s World Cup this summer seeks to draw attention to the plight of homeless and orphaned children across the globe.

Sauerbrunn caused a stir recently on social media when she posted a photo of a baby soccer jersey and shorts, along with her cat. The tweet sent shockwaves through soccer fandom with speculation that she was pregnant.

“I’m like internally cringing just thinking about that. That was a prank gone awry. Do not use Twitter as a format for pranks,” she said. “I was cleaning out my apartment and saw this little Nike uniform and I thought, `Wow, it would be so funny to pull a prank.’ Such a backfire. Mia Hamm texted me and said, `Congratulations,’ and I thought, `I’m a terrible, terrible person, I just tricked Mia Hamm.’ Never again.”

For the record, she’s not pregnant. She’s got some things she’d like to accomplish on and off the field first.

Trio of USWNT players stay in locker room for national anthem

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USWNT players Megan Rapinoe, Sydney Leroux and Becky Sauerbrunn were among players from both the Seattle Reign and FC Kansas City who did not appear for the national anthem at a NWSL game on Sunday.

Rapinoe was the first USWNT player to kneel during the national anthem as she joined the protests led by NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick calling for racial equality and against police brutality.

With several NFL teams on Sunday taking a knee during the anthem and the Pitstburgh Steelers, Tennessee Titans and Seattle Seahawks staying in the locker room during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner, U.S. President Donald Trump has responded angrily to sports teams who decided to kneel during the national anthem.

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This time Megan Rapinoe is not alone. Several players from both teams joined her, staying in the locker room during the flag and anthem ceremony.

Elli Reed, Megan Rapinoe, Madalyn Schiffel, Lauren Barnes and Diana Matheson from the Reign did not take the field. Former Sounders/Reign player Sydney Leroux was among the FCKC starters who were not out for the ceremonies. Yael Averbuch, Becky Sauerbrunn, and Desiree Scott round out that group. Sauerbrunn is currently the United States captain. Leroux and Rapinoe are both regulars with the USWNT.

With U.S. Soccer bringing in a new bylaw earlier this year which states players must stand for the national anthem, could we see male and female U.S. stars following this option by not going out onto the pitch for the national anthem in upcoming international games?

All eyes will be on USWNT captain Sauerbrunn, plus midfielder Rapinoe and Leroux, during the anthem when Jill Ellis’ side play against South Korea on Oct. 19 and Oct. 22.

The actions of Bruce Arena’s USMNT side will also be heavily scrutinized ahead of their upcoming World Cup qualifiers against Panama and Trinidad & Tobago on Oct. 6 and Oct. 10 respectively.

Women’s national team and U.S. Soccer intensify talks

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Talks between the U.S. women’s national team players and the U.S. Soccer Federation intensified over the weekend in the ongoing effort to reach a deal on a new contract.

The latest negotiations come on the heels of an agreement between USA Hockey and its women’s national team for better compensation following a threat by players to boycott the world championships. The Irish women’s national soccer team also said it would skip an upcoming international match in a labor dispute.

“There is no question that women athletes around the world are sending a strong message,” said Molly Levinson, spokeswoman for the U.S. Women’s National Team Players Association. “They are demanding fairness and equality and they are changing the game for the future.”

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The 2015 Women’s World Cup champions have been without a contract since Dec. 31. Talks were stalled when the players parted ways in late December with attorney Rich Nichols, who had been executive director of the USWNTPA since late 2014.

The players’ association has met numerous times with U.S. Soccer since the union brought in a new executive director and legal representation earlier this year.

The terms of the previous collective bargaining agreement remain in place unless either side files a 60-day notice of termination. Neither side has filed.

The latest negotiations come a year after a group of players filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that alleged wage discrimination by the federation. The players maintained male national team counterparts earned far more than they did in many cases.

Becky Sauerbrunn, Meghan Klingenberg and Christen Press were elected player representatives at the team’s January training camp. In February, Sauerbrunn expressed hope that a deal could be struck before the National Women’s Soccer league opens play this month.

U.S. Soccer pays the salaries of national team players in the NWSL and the terms are spelled out in the CBA with the federation.

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“I think the tone is really positive at this point,” midfielder Megan Rapinoe said earlier this year. “I think that we’re excited to collaborate with U.S. Soccer and hopefully get the best deal, not only for us but for them as well in this partnership going forward. I think we’re still very committed to the mission and the goals that we’ve had from the beginning for this CBA, and that’s to get a deal that fairly reflects the work we do on and off the field and our value on the market.”

The USSF has maintained that much of the pay disparity between the men’s and women’s teams results from separate collective bargaining agreements.

The women’s team had set up its compensation structure, which included a guaranteed salary rather than a pay-for-play model like the men, in the last labor contract. The players also earn salaries – paid by the federation – for playing in the NWSL.

The women receive other benefits, including health care, that the men’s national team players don’t receive, the federation has maintained.

The players’ EEOC complaint is still pending. On the anniversary of the filing last week, Rapinoe went to social media to both mark the occasion and support her hockey counterparts.

She posted: “On the 1 yr anniversary of the EEOC filing, we send best wishes to (hash)USWNT hockey in their (hash)2017WWC. Let’s (hash)changethegame (hash)beboldforchange.”

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Last week, just days before hosting the world championships, USA Hockey and the women’s national team reached an agreement to end their wage dispute and avoid a boycott on home ice.

The push for better wages and conditions extended Tuesday, which marked Equal Pay Day, to Ireland, where women’s national team players have threatened to boycott a match on Monday against Slovakia.

The players say they’re not compensated fairly by the Football Association of Ireland for the time they have to take off work to compete. They also want to be paid for matches and would like their own team apparel – something they currently share with youth players.

Men in Blazers podcast: BlazerCon special with the USWNT

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At BlazerCon, World Cup Champions Ali Krieger, Heather O’Reilly and Becky Sauerbrunn discussed their magical summer, meeting the President and the future of the women’s game with Fox Sports 1’s Katie Nolan.

Listen to the latest pod by clicking play below.

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The USWNT is performing exactly how Jill Ellis wants, but will it work against the best?

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It doesn’t look pretty. In fact, it looks quite clunky. Solid possession is at a minimum, the midfield can’t seem to get a hold on the game, and long balls often stifle creativity.

But despite what the eye test is telling us, the USWNT is performing exactly as Jill Ellis wants.

The biggest question now isn’t whether they’ll start playing better anytime soon. They already are at or close to their best. This is the apex of what we’re going to get. Don’t expect anything prettier, don’t expect anything more fluid, or you will be sorely disappointed.

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No, the question isn’t when this team will peak. Ellis has this club playing a strictly defense-first mentality, and with just one single goal conceded all tournament, they’re playing at optimal levels.

Julie Johnston has emerged as the team’s best player, and her center-back partner Becky Sauerbrunn is happy to operate at peak performance in her shadow. While television analysts clamor for the wing-backs to bomb forward and provide some help to the patchy creativity up front, Ellis has Meghan Klingenberg and Ali Krieger sitting comfortably in defensive positions on the flanks.

So when you consider this team has conceded just one goal through four matches so far, and they’ve scored just enough each time, Ellis doesn’t care about any other numbers. While analysts, journalists, and fans clamor the “yea but,” none of that matters to the USWNT right now. That is why, when they found themselves scoreless at halftime against a clearly inferior Colombia side on Monday, nobody looked panicked, frustrated, or concerned in any fashion – they had kept the other team scoreless, and knew that one or two were on their way into the back of the net at some point, no matter how awkward the goalscoring was destined to look. Here’s the expected goals tally for that match:

Sure Alex Morgan is still far from her best. Sure Abby Wambach looks less and less useful. But 0.2 xG for an opponent is a complete and total defensive shutdown, and that’s priority #1 for Ellis. Sure it ain’t pretty, but it’s worked – so far.

And that is the elephant in the room. Not if this team will peak, not if this team will start to look more fluid, more attacking, more cohesive up front; none of that is going to happen. No, the true question mark plaguing this team is do they have enough to hold teams like Germany, France, or Japan off the scoreboard?

When you play to concede zero rather than score three, that is the biggest concern. Sure, the United States has given up just one goal all tournament, but in the only match they did concede – the opener against Australia – it truly felt like they were in trouble. They also drew Sweden, but taking 0-0 to extra time in the knockout stages would feel like advantage US. It’s when the USWNT concedes a goal that the plan begins to unravel.

And that is where the concern lies. The attack of Germany has utterly decleated nearly every defense it’s faced thus far. Can the United States truly play a defensive style and expect to come out with a 1-0 win against a team like that?

Jill Ellis has this USWNT performing exactly how she wants it to at the moment, but when the time comes to put her money where her mouth is so to speak, the fate of the United States’ World Cup hopes lies firmly with the back line. If they can hold the best attacks in the world off the scoreboard, the United States will rumble, bumble, and stumble its way across the finish line to hoist the trophy that has so eluded Abby Wambach and the rest of her teammates. If they can’t, they will go home empty-handed.