Becky Sauerbrunn has won at just about every level imaginable. Olympic gold in 2012. Back-to-back NWSL championships with FC Kansas City. Back-to-back Women’s World Cup titles. And throughout her career, the United States Women’s National Team veteran and captain of the Utah Royals FC has shared the field with the best of the best.
But when Sauerbrunn hears Royals head coach Laura Harvey, her peers, the media or whoever say she’s the best center back in the world, something inside doesn’t allow her to believe it.
“I guess I've always thought that there are levels in me that I can't reach or sometimes reach for a little bit,” Sauerbrunn told The Salt Lake Tribune. “So I feel like I'm just not as complete of a player as I'd like to be. And until that point, saying I could possibly be the best center back in the world seems farfetched.”
That disposition is part of Sauerbrunn’s nature. To never be complacent. To never be satisfied. To always strive for something more, something better, something more transcendent.
So it comes as no surprise that the 34-year-old Sauerbrunn, now in her 14th year as a professional soccer player, isn’t done yet. Not even close. She wasn’t raised that way.
“I think from a young age, I was just taught that complacency in school or in sport or in life is just a very bad thing to be,” Sauerbrunn said.
Sauerbrunn’s soccer life started simple, at the community park near her childhood home in Missouri, where she remembers being part of a swath of elementary school friends following the ball around. It wasn’t until she watched the USWNT celebrate its 1999 World Cup win at age 14 that she decided she would attempt to make soccer her career.
Sauerbrunn always had her sights set on making the national team, and got the opportunity after her college eligibility ended at the University of Virginia. She made the roster for the 2008 Four Nations Tournament in China and played two games. But the coach sent her back down to the Under-23 team.
For the next two and a half years — a period she describes as “being in the wilderness” — Sauerbrunn bided her time. She put all her energy in being the best professional possible while a member of the Washington Freedom, shifting her mindset away from making the national team, but not completely away.
Watching the USWNT compete in the Olympics and play friendlies ate away at Sauerbrunn during that time. It “hurt my heart” that she wasn’t out on the field. Then the same coach who demoted Sauerbrunn to the U-23s asked her to come back in 2010, this time as a fill-in for Joanna Lohman, who was recovering from an ankle injury. She hasn’t missed a national team opportunity since.
Royals forward Amy Rodriguez said she and Sauerbrunn were called up to the national team camp together about a dozen years ago. The two-time Olympic gold winner described Sauerbrunn as “a big sister,” always approachable during a time of need. She remembers Sauerbrunn not getting the call-up to the senior team despite skipping a semester of school trying to make it.
Rodriguez admires her teammate’s dedication to the dream of making the national team.
“What I commend her for is to keep going and for her having that diligent, hard-working attitude where she just went back to the drawing board and kept working,” Rodriguez said.
Sauerbrunn is always working, always leading. When Rodriguez tried to describe Sauerbrunn in one word, she came up with four.
“She’s at every practice, she’s at every training, she’s at every lifting session,” Rodriguez said. “She’s sitting in the front row of every meeting. She’s always present and she’s always focused. We expect that out of a captain.”
But Sauerbrunn hasn’t always been good at what captains are usually good at. She hasn’t always been vocal or demanding. Those around her describe her as an introvert, reserved, reclusive. Sauerbrunn said she is “introverted with extroverted tendencies” along with a self-deprecating sense of humor.
But being a captain of teams throughout her career has forced her out of her comfort zone and into a headspace where she can be the leader her teammates need her to be. That doesn’t mean it’s always easy for her, though.
“For me it's about being comfortable with being uncomfortable,” Sauerbrunn said. “It's definitely something that I've had to grow into. … I think you just get used to it over time. But for me, also, it is kind of draining to have to do that.”
Sauerbrunn recharges her batteries by reading, playing video games — she likes Tomb Raider, “any iteration of Zelda” and recently started Call of Duty — hiking and taking long walks.
“A lot of it is just being by myself,” Sauerbrunn said. “But those small moments that I can kind of steal definitely help me.”
Harvey started coaching Sauerbrunn last year when many of the players from the now-defunct FC Kansas City joined the then newly created Royals. Harvey was of course familiar with Sauerbrunn and her capabilities on the field. But what threw the coach for a loop most was Sauerbrunn’s humility.
“I’ve worked a lot players at her level, and the reason why a lot of them are the way that they are is they have this persona that they know that they’re good,” Harvey said. "And I think the surprising thing to me with her was she doesn’t truly believe that about herself. You have to show her and pull it out of her.”
Harvey likes to show Sauerbrunn on film what she does well. But the center back constantly lobbies her coach to show her the goals she concedes, her bad passes or when’s out of position. But Harvey doesn’t do that, she said.
“I have to find all my bad clips by myself and watch them by myself,” Sauerbrunn said.
That desire to always improve her game is what makes Sauerbrunn a great player, Harvey said. And while Sauerbrunn doesn’t yet know how many more years she’ll play professional soccer, she’s still on the quest for another championship, still trying to make the next Olympic team, still challenging herself of staying ahead of the curve in an ever-changing soccer landscape.
All that comes from a deep-seated desire to stay relevant.
“I feel like the game is always changing and adapting and you also have to change and adapt to meet it,” Sauerbrunn said. “So for me it’s just like if you stay complacent, the game is just going to go by and it’s going to leave you behind. And for me, I just don’t want to be left behind.”
UTAH ROYALS FC VS. NORTH CAROLINA COURAGE
At Rio Tinto Stadium, Sandy
Kickoff » Saturday, 8 p.m.
Last meeting » URFC 1, North Carolina 1 (May 19, Sahlen’s Stadium)
Records » URFC 5-4-3, North Carolina 6-3-4
About North Carolina » Kristen Hamilton leads team with eight goals. … Team has won three of its last four games. … Second in the NWSL in goals scored (27) and first in goal differential (+13). … Four points behind first-place Portland.
About URFC » Team recently signed defender Gaby Vincent to a full contract. … Currently on a four-game winless streak. … Sits sixth in the league standings. … Team has scored two goals in its previous four games. … Amy Rodriguez leads team with five goals.