It’s a testament to Becky Sauerbrunn’s career that, when most think of Portland Thorns FC's central defender, they think of big things. Big, career defining things, piled up on a resume few players at her position have ever been able to rival. Multiple World Cups. An Olympic gold medal. A series of NWSL Best Defender honors as well as two championships in that league. As young defenders are growing up, they want to be Becky Sauerbrunn.
With that resume in mind, Sauerbrunn’s goals coming into 2020 were surprisingly, and perhaps refreshingly muted.
“I had a plan for myself that I was going to feel the waters out, see organically where I was within the team,” she remembered.
It was a situation Sauerbrunn hadn’t experienced in almost a decade. Early in her career, before she was an established international, she’d had to begin in supporting roles. All young players do. Whether it be in Women’s Professional Soccer with the Washington Freedom or as she began getting her first real senior-level time for the U.S. under then-head coach Pia Sundhage, Sauerbrunn was competing without her future self’s resume.
This was in the early aughts. Over the course of three years, Sauerbrunn went from Washington to Boca Raton, Florida (for a season with magicJack), spent a short time in Norway, and then saw her profile grow. It was only 2013 that everything began to solidify. She began moving from reserve to starter for the U.S. She was allocated to FC Kansas City in the nascent NWSL, becoming the team’s captain. As FCKC moved to Utah and her national team cycled in new talent, Sauerbrunn’s course remained relatively unchanged. She’d established herself as a cornerstone place for both club and country.
When she was traded from Utah Royals FC to Portland before the 2020 season, it represented the first time she had to join a new core since before the NWSL’s birth. Her new coach, though, had no intention of casting her into an onlooker’s role.
“I know [Thorns head coach] Mark [Parsons] very early on was like, ‘absolutely not,’” she said. “‘We brought you here for a few reasons, and one of those was that we think you can really help us out on the leadership side.’
“So a big goal for me coming into [the Thorns] was to get out of my comfort zone, to try to help learn and help hold standards to a group that already, obviously, has a lot of history and has a really strong core. It was both me finding my way but also trying to bring things to the group that maybe weren't here.”
Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer / Thorns FC
Sauerbrunn’s way, though, was complicated by two things, the most obvious of which was the COVID-19 pandemic. Before she was able to join her new team for preseason, the country began to lock down. It would be months before she was able to meet her full group of teammates beyond a Zoom video conference call.
“[The first time] I thought that, ‘okay, this is very serious, and this is going to change the way that we are living our lives right now,’ it was just after the She Believes tournament,” she recalled. The U.S.’s final game in this year’s competition was on March 11. “I had just finished the game against Japan. I just remember the staff coming in and saying, ‘Look, everything for the foreseeable future is now cancelled.’ From then on, I knew that this year in general was going to look a lot different, but also, my career was going to look really different.
“For so long, it was about trying to navigate this new world, and then all of a sudden to try and navigate this new world while also trying to play soccer.”
That navigation began in earnest come mid-June, when COVID restrictions in Multnomah County allowed the Thorns to move from limited, small-group training to full-team practices. Prior to that, Sauerbrunn’s training amounted to a workout plan, a section of Providence Park’s field, and a time slot. The leadership Parsons wanted from Sauerbrunn was still being filtered through the necessary COVID protocols.
In theory, that was supposed to change at the NWSL Challenge Cup in Utah – the summer tournament that secured players inside a proverbial “bubble.” Unfortunately, Sauerbrunn’s bubble popped in her first minutes as a Thorn.
“I got injured in the first game of the Challenge Cup,” Sauerbrunn remembers of her 2020’s second major complication: the hip injury she suffered against the North Carolina Courage. “It was the worst injury that I've had in my career.”
“We had put so much into that preseason,” she says, “and we knew that we were doing such hard work in a short, condensed amount of time to prepare for Utah. For us to feel like ‘we did it, we're here’ and that first game, [the injury] was probably 20 minutes into the first half.”
“When I got the MRI back and the injury was a lot more serious than we all thought, that was definitely a low point.”
June was so long ago, it’s hard to remember how the process played out. But Sauerbrunn had played the full 90 minutes in Portland’s Challenge Cup opener, making her appearance on the team’s next injury report a surprise to the rest of the world. “Hip” was all we knew. Given what we’d seen on the field, there seemed little reason for worry. But in the days that followed, a return to the tournament was ruled out, and Sauerbrunn was soon headed back to Portland.
Thus began a process that took over three months to play out, one that ballooned from seemingly innocuous pain to a full-blown recovery.
“Finding my way back to the team and my fitness and trying to get back in, and to have my first 90 minutes I was available to play against [OL Reign on Oct. 10] the last game of the four-game series, I think for me that was a high point,” Sauerbrunn says of her 2020. “I made it back, and I'm really thankful to [Thorns athletic trainer] Pierre [Soubrier] and to [physical trainer] Eric [Marchek] and to the medical and sports performance staff for getting me back.
“[The injury] really sucked. It was not fun. Just the environment and me wanting to get back, and them helping me to get back, it was a high point: knowing that I could do it.”
Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer / Thorns FC
It also gave Sauerbrunn a deeper view of what it meant to become a Thorn. Throughout the team’s spring COVID isolation, she’d seen how the new squad’s culture grew, and how “all the work that we as players put into this weird, weird year, as far as getting to know each other via Zoom or having tactical talks with Mark Parsons on the phone” had begun paying off. By the time the Thorns got to Utah, they were ready to test what they’d built.
But because of her injury – and because of precautions taken during the pandemic – Sauerbrunn quickly found out the value of teammates who never make a lineup card. They’re the Soubriers of the world, not only tasked with athletic training but also leading the way in COVID prevention. It’s the Marcheks of the world, restoring confidence during players’ most vulnerable moments, often while their bodies are unable to support their work.
“The Portland organization has done an amazing job of having protocols, following those protocols and keeping us all safe,” she said, speaking specifically to the Thorns’ COVID precautions. “We've gone through, now, the Challenge Cup and the four-game series, all without a positive test. That's such a success.
“It's kind of astounding, really. I'm just so thankful that I came to an organization that really put the health and safety of the players first.”
Within that gratitude is a note of hope, one that frames Sauerbrunn’s outlook on 2021.
“I think the fact that the Challenge Cup was run so smoothly, and the four-game series has gone very well as far as each team keeping their players healthy, I would like to see us be able to expand that into a larger season,” she says, “so that maybe we can get fans back into the stadiums in a safe way, and we can put product on the field.
“I would love to see just the league in general continue to grow and flourish like I felt we'd been doing for the last few years. I would really like to see that trajectory to keep going up.”
Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer / Thorns FC