Becky Saurebrunn, feature, 2.3.20

Becky Sauerbrunn is used to attention, just not this kind.

More often than not, the four-time National Women’s Soccer League Defender of the Year makes her news on the field, doing so as a two-time world champion, two-time league champion, an Olympic gold medalist and a seven-time, all-NWSL defender. She is one of the best-known players in the United States’ player pool, but almost all of that fame has been won on the field. She’s not one to court news.

Over the last week, though, that courtship was undeniable. Ahead of today’s trade to Portland Thorns FC, news around Sauerbrunn was all off the field.

“It was uncomfortable,” she admitted via phone from Orlando, Florida, where the 164-time U.S. international is training with her country ahead of this month’s SheBelieves Cup. “I’ve tried to conduct myself in my career where I wasn’t the story. So, this has been different.”

Different, but commensurate with a player of her status, and not unwarranted. She is one of the most influential players in the history of the NWSL, and at 34 years old, Sauerbrunn is still considered the league’s standard for defenders. That’s why, when Equalizer Soccer, last week, broke the news about her impending trade, fans naturally asked why. Why would Utah Royals FC be willing to part with one of the best and most recognizable players in her sport?

“It wasn’t about soccer,” Sauerbrunn says, confirming speculation that had emerged around the move. “The soccer situation in Utah is great. It wasn’t about Laura [Harvey, the Royals’ head coach in 2018 and 2019] leaving or who would replace her. This was about, for me, what life would be like at home and off the field.”

Sauerbrunn’s offseason reality wasn’t a secret, but it was also something that had little relevance to how she performed on the field. That’s why the reality of this trade might catch some off guard. Within women’s soccer, though, the reality for the St. Louis-born, University of Virginia graduate was known. Most knew where she’d made her home.

Home is Portland. It has been for the last five years, during which time she’s persisted with a split life. Whether it was in Utah or, before that, Kansas City, where she was part of back-to-back title-winners in 2014 and 2015, Sauerbrunn was forced to strike a balance. Her personal life would be one place. Her professional life would be in another.

“As a player, I’ve lived my life in two parts, where my life with my team has been away from where I was [otherwise] lived,” she says. “Going to Portland at this point in my career, having lived there for five years, that changes. This move allows me to play at home.”

It’s not an uncommon situation for an NWSL player, but it’s also not an ideal one. Over the course of her 12-year professional career, Sauerbrunn has managed her not ideal. But having helped the Royals begin their franchise, and having reached a point in time when a move became possible, Sauerbrunn was given an opportunity – a similar opportunity to one which was close two years before.

“Playing in Portland was something that I’d thought about before, and when the team in Kansas City went away, it looked like that might be the time,” she remembers about the winter of 2017-18, when FC Kansas City eventually folded. In time, players from the Blues were allocated to Utah. Sauerbrunn decided to sign on.

“After meeting with the team in Utah, they gave the opportunity to help start something new that was going to be good,” she says. “That was the choice I made at that time.”

That choice provides more context on today’s why. A sad part of professional sports in the United States is that trades, signings, demotions and releases force part of our brains to look at players as commodities, and those commodities have market values. If you support a team that’s constantly making moves on the wrong side of their players’ value, you’re likely supporting a team that’s on the wrong side of the standings. It’s depressing to even type that out.

That may be a reality of North American sports, but it’s not one without exceptions. Utah’s decision implies as much. With somebody who has given as much to the game as Sauerbrunn – and earned as much respect as the U.S. international – you don’t view her through the same lens as other athletes, and while ideally more players would get the chance she’s earned, Sauerbrunn has earned that stature – part of the reason first, in-person reactions to her deal have been largely positive.

“I’ve been so encouraged by the support,” she says. “All the people at Utah, my teammates. Everybody has been really understanding ... [they’ve been] really supportive.”

Given Sauerbrunn’s reluctance to assume the spotlight, that support may have been needed, though in situations like these, that spotlight was unavoidable. You don’t have the kind of career that sparks debates about the best defenders ever without your choices making huge news. You also don’t have accumulated her resume on and off the field without earning those choices, and the deference that comes with them.

Utah’s part in this deal should not be ignored. It was within their rights to hold out for more in exchange for Sauerbrunn. They could have argued that, despite her age and the place she’s reached in her career, she’s still the league’s most valuable defender on a per-game basis. After all, she did win Defender of the Year last season, and while Sauerbrunn quickly acknowledged that award may have been based on reputation over performance, that reputation is still powerful.

But the Thorns have been in this situation before, too, albeit in circumstances much different than Sauerbrunn’s. When time had come for prominent players like Alex Morgan and Allie Long to move on, the Thorns found new homes for each, and while the haul the Thorns got in return for Morgan makes that trade a poor point of comparison, one throughline is true: When it was time for a prominent player to find a new home, that new home was found.

Sauerbrunn chose her new home. Utah understood. Whereas at one point she was able to choose the Rose City on a personal level, now she’s been able to choose it as a professional.

No, it may not be her first home, but with today’s news, it gets to be her current one, in full. With today’s trade, Sauerbrunn gets to come home.

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