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For its new captain, the USWNT turned to the player ‘who has always been there’: Becky Sauerbrunn

Becky Sauerbrunn, second from right, joins goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher and defenders Abby Dahlkemper (7) and Crystal Dunn against Brazil’s Debinha in the SheBelieves Cup in Orlando. (Alex Menendez/Getty Images)

ORLANDO — Last month, a few days before the U.S. women’s national soccer team played its first match of the year, Coach Vlatko Andonovski summoned defender Becky Sauerbrunn for a meeting.

He needed a captain, not just for two upcoming friendlies against Colombia but for the Olympics this summer and perhaps beyond. During Andonovski’s first 15 months in charge, several players, including Sauerbrunn, had filled the role, but the captain’s armband needed a full-time home.

“That was not what I was expecting going into that conversation — at all,” Sauerbrunn said Tuesday with a laugh.

Andonovski’s decision was not unexpected — to anyone other than Sauerbrunn. Midfielder Sam Mewis calls her “my moral compass.” Defender Casey Krueger says “she sets the standard.” Defender Tierna Davidson calls her a “fantastic role model.”

Sauerbrunn had shared the captaincy with Carli Lloyd in 2016-17 and, in November, led the team against the Netherlands. With or without the title, she has long been one of the leaders of a team that has never lacked strong voices.

But with a major tournament approaching, Andonovski turned back to his 35-year-old central defender. The tri-captains under former coach Jill Ellis in 2018-19 — Lloyd, Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe — supported the decision.

“She was a leader of the team before. She is a leader of the team now,” Andonovski said. “She has been incredible in communication between players and coaches, and she has always been there for the players. Quite frankly, she has been there for the coaches as well.”

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The University of Virginia graduate is expected to guide the top-ranked United States into the SheBelieves Cup finale Wednesday against Argentina at Exploria Stadium. With a victory or draw, the world champions would raise the trophy for the fourth time in six years.

Sauerbrunn’s appointment comes as the squad confronts issues beyond tactics and performance. The team has taken a stand against racial and social inequity, speaking out and, until Sunday’s win against Brazil, kneeling during the national anthem before games. (Instead of kneeling, the players said they’ll now apply their energy toward real change rather than symbolic gestures.)

The players have also looked inward, seeking to better understand one another.

“I am helping facilitate a space for those conversations to take place,” Sauerbrunn said. “And then there are a bunch of players on this team in that space who are stepping up and sharing their advice and their experience.”

Krueger said Sauerbrunn has stepped up.

“Certainly, with these difficult conversations and difficult topics, [her leadership] has continued,” Kreuger said. “She has stepped up big time, starting these conversations and leading the way.”

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Sauerbrunn’s influence goes well beyond leadership. With her anchoring the defense, the Americans have posted shutouts in five consecutive matches and 13 of the past 14. They have conceded multiple goals once in the past 31 outings. During this 36-game unbeaten streak, they have recorded almost double the number of shutouts (27) as goals allowed (14).

While U.S. goals have been hard to come by in the SheBelieves Cup, the defense has been solid. Though they haven’t conceded any goals, the Americans have allowed several dangerous opportunities.

“We hold ourselves to a very high standard, and when a team gets a shot on goal, we are not happy about it,” Sauerbrunn said. “We also have to understand we’re playing against some of the best teams in the world. It’s a little bit of wholesome discontent.”

The U.S. attack has long drawn the most attention. After all, fans want to see scoring. And the defense has typically been labeled the weak link in the operation. That has left goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher and the back line working in the shadows of Morgan, Rose Lavelle and the other attackers.

“From the outside, some things have more glory, some things have less glory,” Sauerbrunn said. “Unfortunately, being a defender, it doesn’t have that much glory, but it’s just as important.”

Sauerbrunn has made 181 international appearances, blending a U.S. career with a pro portfolio that began in 2008 with the Washington Freedom in Women’s Professional Soccer, the predecessor to the National Women’s Soccer League. After five NWSL seasons in Kansas City and two in Salt Lake City, she moved to the Portland Thorns last year.

Sauerbrunn said she wants to play in the Olympics and then evaluate her status from there.

“I don’t want to be holding on and have the game pass me by. I don’t want to be that player,” she said. “I want my teammates and my coach to say, ‘Yes, you can still do this.’ I will trust they will tell me the truth. I also want them to say, ‘Yeah, man, you don’t have it anymore.’ If I am not bringing it anymore, I will bow out gracefully.”

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