FourFourTwo USA's 50 Best American Women's Players of 2017: No. 5, Becky Sauerbrunn
Sauerbrunn is one of four players to get first-place votes from the year’s #USWNT50 panel. That she is ranked lowest of the four might speak to a certain bias against defenders, or the times she was on the wrong end of highlights during the previous year, or the fact that three other U.S. internationals had very, very strong seasons.
Still, there’s something about Sauerbrunn that continues to be underrated, even as the “best defender in the world” label has been throw around more liberally over the last four years. She remains, without a doubt, worthy of that consideration, but that skill combined with elite consistency, leadership and, as she is now 32, longevity makes you wonder why she isn’t higher on this list.
Consider this as a possible explanation — a hypothesis worth testing, if you will. When you image a center back you envision a certain thing, usually build around a player that makes plays when opportunities present themselves. As opposed to a striker, though, center backs’ opportunities come preventing goals, leaving two possible outcomes to any player: Merely doing their job, or screwing up.
That view of Sauerbrunn’s position will never understand why she, quietly, might deserve to be much higher on this list. More than any center back the game’s seen, Sauerbrunn creates her own opportunities to impact that game. Her ability to read building play has, perhaps, never been seen before in the women’s game, so much so that the nearly movement-to-movement impact she has on opposing attacks tends to transcend description. Yet sit down with a pen and paper, track everything that Sauerbrunn does on the field, and compare that to what other players in her positions are doing, and you get a picture that transcends our expectations for the center back position.
How does that performance compare to that of an elite attacker? A world-class creator? Or all-around, end-line-to-end-line presence in midfield? That’s where things get difficult, because while it’s easy to imagine Sauerbrunn as miles ahead of the United States' (or, perhaps the world’s) other centerbacks, it’s more difficult to to get a grasp on how her performance compares with other positions.
Here’s an exercise I’d recommend, though, for those who are into advanced metrics: Over a handful of NWSL games, keep track of where, around the penalty area, Sauerbrunn is making (or missing) plays, then compare that to the number of goals an attack could expect to score from those positions, had Sauerbrunn not intervened. Do so, and you’ll see why she may be the U.S.’ most impactful player.