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Sonnett, Mewis hope Olympic experience is springboard for USWNT careers

ISI Photos-Brad Smith

As alternates, Emily Sonnett and Sam Mewis weren't officially considered Olympians. Richard Farley looks at how they will still reap the rewards down the road.

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PORTLAND, Ore. – It was after extra fitness, something the four United States’ women’s national team alternates did regularly in Brazil, that Emily Sonnett found the highlight of her time at the 2016 Summer Olympics.

“I actually just got it sent today to me,” the 22-year-old defender says, tilting her iPhone horizontal to show her new video. In it, a group of 40 to 50 people are in formations outside a gym in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Blockading a street while facing an instructor, the platoon started an impromptu zumba class, one that caught Sonnett and her teammates off guard.

“I don’t know if Zumba’s Brazilian,” she laughs. Neither do I, though neither of us care (it was founded by a Colombian dancer). Staring at the video of her and U.S. international Samantha Mewis dancing at the edge of the crowd, we laugh at the contrast. Moments before, the duo was exhausted by trying to keep up with Heather O’Reilly on the treadmill.

“[Megan Rapinoe] and Ashlyn (Harris) ended up joining,” she explains, calling the zumba class “by far, off the field” the highlight of her time in Brazil.

For most Olympians, the highlight is the competition. For Sonnett, Mewis, O’Reilly and Harris, competition was not in the cards. As the four alternates to the U.S.’ 18-woman squad, the quartet went to Brazil for emergency use only. With the U.S. avoiding significant injuries, the alternates’ lives were defined by mimicking future opponents, picking balls out of nets, and doing whatever it took to push their teammates to the highest level.

“It was something that I had never really gone through before,” explained Mewis, a second-year midfielder for the Western New York Flash in the National Women’s Soccer League. A strong season at club level helped move the UCLA product into contention for Jill Ellis’ final roster. Like Sonnett, she was one of the final cuts.

“Any time you’re with the national team, you know there’s a chance you might not play, you might not dress, but there is always that small opportunity, and you want to be as prepared as you can be,” Mewis explained, contrasting the unique circumstances in Brazil with a normal national team camp. 

I think if everybody, at some point, goes through a situation like that, you really have to learn what it means to make personal sacrifices and put what’s best for the team as your first priority."

- Sam Mewis, USWNT

“The approach I took going into this and to try to get through every day was instead of thinking of what do I need to do to be prepared for the game, I was saying, 'What does Morgan Brian need to be prepared for the game? What does Christen Press need to be prepared for the game?' I was trying to do whatever I could do to make their life easier, to help them be ready.”

Meghan Klingenberg, Sonnett’s NWSL teammate in Portland, was in the same situation four years earlier, one she described as “hard.” In Brazil, she was the U.S.’ first-choice left back, a stark contrast to role she was assigned in London. 

“You are practicing. You’re doing extra weights. You’re making sure you’re fit. You’re pretending to be Sweden,” Klingenberg explained. “You’re pretending to be any other team that we’re going to face. Then you’re completely a non-factor on game day, because we have to focus the game. It’s not an easy to be in, but it’s a very important position for the team.”

ISI Photos-Brad Smith

Fitness: Chasing HAO. (ISI Photos-Brad Smith)

It’s also a very important position for the alternates. Prior to the London Olympics, Klingenberg, 24 at the time, was on the fringes of the national team. So too was Press, who is now a regular. Klingenberg's time with the full team not only helped her integrate into the larger squad, it gave her an idea what needed to be done to solidify her place.

“I think watching from the stands and watching my teammates win the gold, I had a birdseye view of every single game, so I knew exactly what it was like,” Klingenberg, now back with the Thorns for the season's homestretch, explained. “I saw all the tactics. I saw how teams were breaking us down. I saw how we were breaking teams down, and I saw how I thought was (how) a full back, or a center back, or an outside mid should play. 

“From those looks I was able to figure out where I wanted to go and what I wanted to be in the next four years. And from there I went to Sweden and got what I wanted out of being abroad … Luckily I was able to be in the selection for the next Olympics.”

That’s the payoff for alternates, something Mewis and Sonnett hope play out for them over the next cycle. Barely missing out this time, both players were given guidance on what now needed to improve to break past the 18-player mark. With age on their sides, the national team neophytes can focus on making their own marks in the upcoming cycle.

“I think Sonnett and I going through the whole thing, we feel more a part of the team now than before the roster was picked …,” Mewis says, excitedly, saying she never felt like a “second-class citizen.” 

“I hope that what we did and us being around for so long and being in such an intense environment enabled everybody else to see us as part of the team, too, even though we’re young and we’re relatively new. I think that the whole experience in general was an inclusive one. I think that that’s going to be great for us going forward …”

Though eager to get back to playing actual games, Sonnett found the experience just as valuable.

“Looking at [missing out on the 18], having feedback on what I need to work on, and talking to Kling and Christen, even going and getting that world-stage experience at a big tournament, that’s going to be vital,” Sonnett says. “Just being 22 and going forward, toward the 2019 World Cup, just being even [in Brazil] knowing how the traveling works, how meals after games (work), how they structure the game plan and the different meetings, I think that’s huge for me. If I’m lucky enough to even make it to the next World Cup, I will know that this is exactly how they do it.”

They’re the same lessons Klingenberg took from her time in London, lessons she relayed to the alternates this time around.

“I talked to [Sonnett], I told her, 'Listen, I see your potential. I see how good that you are for the Thorns,'” Klingenberg recalls. “I see how good you’re going to be, and this is not a setback. I think this is actually a compliment, saying you should be in the position. You should be here. Learn from this world tournament. Learn what it takes to win. Learn what it takes to be the best. Then the very next cycle, you’re going to in the mix.”

For now, with the next World Cup three years away, focus shifts back to club level, where both players are being thrust back into the NWSL playoff race. For Sonnett, that means resuming her role in central defense for the second-place Thorns. For Mewis, it’s commanding the midfield for the third-place upstarts in Western New York.

Even there, the lessons learned in Brazil can be applied to the field.

“I think if everybody, at some point, goes through a situation like that, you really have to learn what it means to make personal sacrifices and put what’s best for the team as your first priority,” Mewis explains. “I think that’s something I can take with me as I move forward in my career.”

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Richard Farley is the West Coast Editor of FourFourTwo USA. Follow him on Twitter @richardfarley.