Sure, an Olympic medal would be slight redemption for Becky Sauerbrunn and the U.S. women’s soccer team after their loss to Japan in last year’s World Cup final. But that will be far from their only motivation this summer in London.
The U.S. women will play in a major international tournament without the presence of a top-flight professional league at home.
So these Olympics will give the U.S. women another chance to bring their sport into the forefront and, perhaps most important, give them a chance to create a sustainable professional league.
“I think we need to generate the right type of people to get a professional league going,” said Sauerbrunn, a defender, four-year starter and all-American at Virginia. “Get sponsors, or backers, owners that have the will and money to have a professional team. The Olympics can do that.”
U.S. women’s soccer has been without a sanctioned first-division professional circuit since Women’s Professional Soccer folded in May after three seasons.
It was the second U.S. professional league to fail after the Women’s United Soccer Association closed in 2003, also after three seasons.
Roughly a third of the U.S. national team plays in the United Soccer League’s W-League, comprising a mix of professional and top-flight amateur players. Sauerbrunn, who played two seasons for the Washington Freedom of WPS before the franchise relocated to Florida in 2011, suits up for D.C. United Women, one of several W-League teams affiliated with men’s franchises in either Major League Soccer or the United Soccer Leagues.
Sauerbrunn said the affiliations help with branding as the D.C. United name may help draw fans to the women’s team.
WPS officials and investors said earlier this year that they will reorganize and look to relaunch in 2013, and Sauerbrunn is hopeful that D.C. United Women could make the jump to the next level.
This season, Sauerbrunn helped guide United to a first-place Eastern Conference finish and the right to host playoff games on July 21 and 22. Unlike the WPS, the W-League won’t take an Olympic break and Sauerbrunn will miss the playoffs.
She said the league has helped her improve, as the quality of play is strong in the region because of the area college and club teams.
“Anytime that you’re getting games in, you’re going to get better,” Sauerbrunn said. “Just being able to train and play with these girls has made me better.”
Unlike men’s soccer at the Olympics, the women’s teams are not restricted by age. Therefore, the squad largely will be the same as last summer’s World Cup team, still captained by Christie Rampone and coached by Pia Sundhage.
She said Sundhage is a hands-on coach who stresses key details that have helped the team progress since last summer, when the U.S. women suffered their first loss in World Cup group play.
But the Americans rebounded with a dramatic quarterfinal victory over Brazil and a 3-1 win over France in the semifinals to set up the championship matchup with Japan.
The United States lost in penalty kicks.
“She’s goofy, which is great about her,” Sauerbrunn said of Sundhage. “You don’t really get coaches, very often, like her at this level.”
Sauerbrunn, who played in one World Cup game — she started the semifinal win over France — said her feelings going into the Olympics are comparable to how she felt last summer before the World Cup.
“You always dream of being an Olympian,” Sauerbrunn said. “And now I’m getting ready to compete in one. It’s kind of crazy to me.”
As is the thought that she has been able to continue her soccer career, even in the absence of a top-flight professional league.
“It really doesn't make sense to me sometimes,” Sauerbrunn said. “It’s almost ludicrous that I’m playing a game and getting paid for it. I’m just going to ride it as long as I can.”