Looking up to the champions: No. 1 women’s soccer picks favorite players on the US women’s national team

Led by Coach Steve Swanson, the undefeated Cavaliers have many ties to the 2019 USWNT

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The undefeated Cavaliers take inspiration in their play this season from the 2019 FIFA World Cup champions. The U.S. women's national team roster featured three former Virginia players — defender Becky Sauerbrunn (2007), midfielder Morgan Brian (2014) and defender Emily Sonnett (2015).

Courtesy Virginia Athletics

The U.S. women’s national team generated international buzz with their extraordinary World Cup run this summer in France. A handful of national team stars played at Virginia for Coach Steve Swanson, who also served as an assistant coach on the USWNT. Becky Sauerbrunn, defender and Class of 2007 alumna, Morgan Brian, midfielder and Class of 2014 alumna and Emily Sonnett, defender and Class of 2015 alumna, all took on major roles at Virginia. 

While each member of the USWNT deserves recognition, the Virginia women’s soccer team named a few favorites. 

Sauerbrunn, the most seasoned of the former Cavaliers, generated a lot of support from the team. Sauerbrunn’s grit and no-nonsense style of play have served the 34-year-old well as she has represented the U.S. in three World Cup tournaments. 

“I like her because not only is she a very intelligent and technical player, but she is also a strong leader of both the USWNT's defense and overall team as a whole,” freshman midfielder Emma Dawson said. 

Sauerbrunn isn’t interested in taking center stage. Rather, the veteran defender is the team’s backbone, getting the job done and willing to do anything to help her team win. 

“[Sauerbrunn] seems like an incredible and genuine person,” senior midfielder Zoe Morse said. “I was so lucky to have gotten the opportunity to train with her once when she visited Charlottesville and saw just how much care she took with her training, as well as the people around her.”

Sophomore goalkeeper Michaela Moran summed up Sauerbrunn’s warrior mentality.

“She’s always a player you can rely on to get the job done,” Moran said. “It isn’t always pretty or perfect, but she gets it done.”

It wasn’t perfect and certainly wasn’t pretty when Sauerbrunn went head-to-head with a Dutch defender in the 2019 World Cup final. The collision left blood streaming down her forehead, but Sauerbrunn reentered what was likely her last World Cup match with a bandage wrapped around her head, determined to keep playing.

Many Cavaliers praised the technical skills of forward Tobin Heath. They admired her creative playstyle, playmaking ability and fancy footwork.

“The way she is able to go [one-on-one] at defenders and beat them nearly every time is incredible to watch,” junior midfielder Sydney Zandi said. “Her footwork is unbelievable, as it allows her to create lots of goal scoring opportunities for the team.“

Sophomore forward and defender Ashlynn Serepca and senior forward Alissa Gorzak also enjoy watching Heath play.

“I love her creativity on the ball and her work ethic,” Serepca said. “She is never afraid to take someone [one-on-one] and her ability to score from anywhere is inspiring.”

“I love how energetic she is, her ball skills are incredible and she is one of the most clever players on the team,” Gorzak added.

Midfielder Julie Ertz also gained a lot of votes from the Virginia soccer squad. Multiple players identified Ertz as a someone who is competitive and relentless on the pitch, utilizing every opportunity to score.

“She’s an absolute baller and plays her heart out on the field,” senior forward Megan McCool said. 

Sophomore midfielder Alexa Spaanstra added, “She is very versatile, competitive and always finds a way to score.”

Spaanstra was able to relate to Ertz’s experience in moving between positions.

”In college, she was a forward/midfielder for Santa Clara,” Spaanstra said. “When she first started playing for the national team she was put as a center back and is now playing center mid. My first year in college, I was an outside forward, and now during my second year, I am playing center mid.”

Sophomore midfielder Lauren Hinton also pointed to Ertz’s dedication to giving back. 

“[She] and her husband recently launched the Ertz Family Foundation that supports youth in sports, school teachers and building community for families that need it the most,” Hinton said. “She also just seems really fun to be around. I like to think we'd be good friends.”

Rose Lavelle made her World Cup debut in France. The Cincinnati native left her mark on the international stage, earning the Bronze Ball — awarded to the third-best player in the tournament — and establishing herself as a rising star in women’s soccer. Her beautiful solo effort against the Netherlands produced the final goal of the tournament and cemented the U.S. as world champions.

“She’s young and didn't come from one of the soccer powerhouses but paved her own path,” junior defender Mckenna Angotti said. “She’s super talented, fast on the dribble and can strike a ball with both feet. She’s very fun to watch.”

“She is also ridiculously creative, especially in and around the 18,” senior defender Phoebe McClernon added. “She is an amazing distributor but also is not afraid to be selfish and capitalizes on her opportunities.”

Lavelle plays with a creative flare, and junior midfielder Anna Sumpter said she tries to learn from Lavelle’s unique style of play.

“Her tenacity and creativity going forward with the ball is something I'd like to adopt into my own game, especially being a midfielder myself,” Sumpter said. 

The star that generated the most attention this year was Megan Rapinoe. An athlete, activist and fashion icon, Rapinoe captured the hearts of fans across the world with her outspoken personality and unmatched talent. The veteran forward earned the Golden Boot in France this summer and was recently named FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year. 

“She is relentless and extremely creative,” junior midfielder Taryn Torres said. “She loves the game, and it shows when she plays.”

From burying the penalty kick that secured a U.S. victory in the World Cup final to fighting for equal pay, Rapinoe is a national icon on and off the field.

“She is not afraid to make a scene and she is not afraid to stand up for what is right and what needs to be done to make a situation right,” senior defender Courtney Petersen said. 

Freshman forward Diana Ordoñez also says Rapinoe is her favorite player “because of how consistent she is in her performance and her ability to execute her role every game.”

“I also love her style off the field and how she dresses day-to-day,” Ordoñez added.

A Nike athlete, Rapinoe is often seen wearing iconic sneakers paired with similarly fashionable clothing.

Some Virginia players have even played alongside USWNT stars. Junior goalkeeper Laurel Ivory named defender Tierna Davidson — the youngest member of the women’s national team at 21-years-old — as her favorite player.

“She is a friend of mine, and I have loved watching her journey through the national teams,” Ivory said. “Playing with her was a privilege and to see her at the biggest stage is so unbelievably encouraging.”

While it’s hard to compare any team to the 2019 USWNT, the Cavaliers have been outstanding this season, outcompeting opponents in every aspect of the game.

Similar to the national team’s performance in the most recent World Cup, Virginia has tallied significant goals and shutout opponents with ease this season. The Cavaliers are second in the NCAA in total goals with 38. Virginia’s 7-0 and 6-0 wins against UC Irvine and Liberty at the start of the season are comparable to the national team’s 13-0 and 3-0 shutouts in the first two games of the World Cup.

The USWNT backline certainly took some heat prior to the World Cup, with many skeptical that the defense would hold up through the tournament. But the team overcame expectations to allow just three goals over the course of the World Cup. Similarly, Virginia’s senior captains McClernon and Morse have led a defense that has held opponents to just four goals this season.

Virginia’s roster is filled with players who have represented the U.S. at the international level, and possibly some who will go on to represent the nation at the highest stage. Ivory was one of 24 players called up for play with the U23 women’s national team at the Thorns Spring Invitational earlier this year. Morse and Torres were also named to the U.S. under-20 women’s national team in 2018. McClernon, Spaanstra and Ivory were added to the Hermann Trophy preseason watch list, an award Morgan Brian received in 2013 and 2014. 

Swanson has been incredibly successful as an assistant coach to the USWNT, helping lead the team to the 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil and back-to-back World Cup titles in 2015 and 2019. He recognizes the tremendous impact the 23 national team members have on his Virginia players.

“It gives all our players somebody to watch, somebody to emulate,” Swanson said. “I think when we look at where we were 10 years ago — it was hard to find a televised women’s national team game — to where we are now, and it’s come a long way, and I think we can be educated by them, we can grow from them, we can learn about handling success and failure all those things that come with being world-class athletes.”

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