“We haven’t had to change a lot.”
Becky Sauerbrunn, one of USA’s new co-captains following Abby Wambach’s retirement and a long-term injury to Christie Rampone, sounds calm, cool and collected speaking to FIFA.com about how the Stars and Stripes are approaching 2016 and the build up to the Women’s Olympic Football Tournament in Rio de Janeiro, following historic levels of success after winning their third FIFA Women’s World Cup™ in Canada last summer. But you could excuse the veteran American centre-back if she were to approach the changes to her national team apprehensively.
By the end of 2015, Lauren Holiday, Shannon Boxx, Lori Chalupny and Wambach all hung up their boots. Megan Rapinoe was sidelined with an extended recovery after a knee injury. Sydney Leroux is expecting her first child, so she was no longer with the team. And Rampone, now 40-years old, is still struggling to shake off the effects of knee surgery. Meanwhile, there has also been a 17-year old starting in place of some of the most recognisable names in women’s football.
“We have lost a lot of players to retirement, pregnancy and injury, but we have a core group that have been to world championships before, so a lot of us have experience at this level,” Sauerbrunn said, nothing short of confident. “And we also have an injection of youth, who are bringing their talents to the table. Now we’re trying to blend it all together and to lead it in one direction that is best for the team.”
After USA celebrated their third world championship, there were whispers around the women’s football community wondering if Jill Ellis’s side could maintain their near flawless form considering the wide-spread changes her squad had faced in the five months since their 5-2 victory against Japan in the Women’s World Cup Final in Vancouver. After all, the world’s all-time leading goal scorer was retiring, not to mention the team would be missing the invaluable impacts of Rapinoe, Leroux, Chalupny, Boxx, Rampone and Holiday as they pushed forward to Rio 2016, trying to become the first side to win the Women’s World Cup and Olympic gold the following year.
But the youth Sauerbrunn speaks of have been making their mark, which has helped quell any fears of an impending slide for the Stars and Stripes. Having breezed through Olympic qualifying, followed by an inaugural victory in the SheBelieves Cup and most recently a 7-0 thumping of Colombia in Connecticut, youngsters such as Crystal Dunn, Lindsey Horan and the aforementioned 17-year old Mallory Pugh have all been making their mark. As one of the team’s most experienced players, Sauerbrunn sees this new injection of youth into the squad as necessary, and helpful.
“They came into training camp and were already professionals,” Sauerbrunn said of the team’s youngsters. “In no way can we tell that Mallory Pugh is just a 17-year old. She came in and she’s been holding herself to a high standard. She’s been classy. Obviously on the field she’s been getting stuff done and the same can be said of Crystal. It’s not that we’ve had to bring them along; they’re already very advanced for how old they are. Really it’s just getting them on the same page when it comes down to the details of how we want to play.”
Dunn doing it all
Of the younger players Sauerbrunn mentions, Dunn has had arguably the biggest impact on the squad despite not having had a consistent role in Ellis’s plans, much less a confirmed position on the field. That does not seem to bother the 23-year old, however, who was one of the last players cut from USA’s roster before Canada 2015.
“With Jill, she’s put me out wide, she’s put me up top a couple of times,” Dunn explained. “I couldn’t tell you today where I think I best fit with the team…but I think I’m in a good place. 2016 has been very successful for me so far.”
Despite the lack of a consistent role within the team, Dunn has made the most of her opportunity since becoming a mainstay within the squad, even scoring five goals in one match against Puerto Rico in Olympic qualifying. When Wambach retired, her lasting message to her former team-mates and to the world was to forget about her. Another generation was coming to replace her, and that was OK.
“(Abby’s) message allowed me and other players in my era to come in and feel like we belong and we can make an impact,” Dunn said. “Her message allowed players like me to feel like we have some shoes to fill but at the same time we’re more than capable of doing so.”
For anyone left doubting if the three-time world champions are in good hands following the recent personnel changes, an attitude like the one Dunn possesses, particularly combined with the quiet confidence exuded by co-captain Sauerbrunn should put those fears aside.
“I’ve always been able to reach out and lean on these veterans – Abby being one of them,” Dunn said. “She always said, ‘Do you. You’re here for a reason. Show us what you're made of.’
“Kudos to the veterans who have paved such a good path for us.”