While international soccer was placed on pause for what seemed like forever due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a number of international tournaments will return this coming summer. With the CONCACAF Gold Cup set to take place from July 2 to Aug. 1 and the Summer Olympics from July 23 to Aug. 8, four former Virginia soccer players are poised to make important contributions for their respective nations.
Forward Daryl Dike
Despite beginning his freshman year at Virginia as a reserve, U.S. Men’s National Team forward Daryl Dike ended his 2018 season with five goals, one assist and ACC All-Freshman Team honors. In the following year, Dike went on to start all 23 matches for the Cavaliers, leading the team to a national championship appearance and himself to an early exit to Major League Soccer.
Selected fifth overall in the 2020 MLS Superdraft by Orlando City FC, Dike exploded onto the professional soccer scene, logging an impressive rookie campaign in which he scored eight goals and collected four assists. No longer a reserve on the Cavaliers’ bench, Dike has not only opened the eyes of the USMNT — to which he was called up to in November — but after securing a loan move to the English Championship with Barnsley FC in January, it is clear that Dike is now an international commodity.
Although his name did not appear in the preliminary Olympic Qualifying roster announced on Tuesday, this may turn out to be a blessing in disguise for Dike as USMNT Coach Craig Berhalter may prefer the 6 foot 2 striker for the Gold Cup. Whereas the Olympics generally features younger and more inexperienced players with its cutoff of 24 years, the Gold Cup will often spotlight the best that the men’s national team has to offer. If he is picked for this summer’s Gold Cup squad, Dike will hope to solidify his spot among the elite US center-forwards while he plays alongside national team stars, such as Christian Pulisic and Weston Mckennie.
Winger Derrick Etienne
Ranked as the 27th overall prospect in 2015 by College Soccer News, Haitian National Team midfielder Derrick Etienne began his collegiate career at Virginia with huge expectations. Although his time with the Cavaliers was short, Etienne received ACC All-Freshman Team honors and utilized his collegiate experience as a stepping stone to signing his first professional contract in March 2015.
While Etienne’s next five years in American professional soccer proved to be a rollercoaster as he switched teams five times, Etienne found consistency in international competition, steadily rising up the Haitian National Team ladder. After being cut by the New York Red Bulls in 2019, his stellar play during that summer’s Gold Cup helped earn him a contract with the Columbus Crew in 2020. With 21 appearances during the regular season, Etienne scored a decisive goal in December’s MLS cup to give the Columbus Crew its second-ever championship. This summer, the midfielder hopes to add to his trophy case as the Haitian National Team looks to follow up on its storied 2019 Gold Cup run, where it made a Cinderella run to the semifinals.
Defender Emily Sonnett
Originally recruited as a center-midfielder, U.S. Women’s National Team stalwart Emily Sonnett rose to the challenge and transitioned to the center-back position due to various injuries in the Cavaliers’ backline during the 2012 season. Named as the 2015 ESPNW Soccer Player of the Year and ACC Defensive Player of the Year, Sonnett’s position change turned out to be a career-altering decision. Not only did her steady play on the Cavaliers’ backline propel her to a first overall selection in the 2016 National Women’s Soccer League Draft, but it also led to her first callup to the Senior National Team.
Now a consistent member of the USWNT, Sonnett has been on its radar since her debut on the U-18 team in 2011. Since then, Sonnett has participated in the 2016 Olympics, 2019 World Cup and several CONCACAF tournaments. On the club side, the former Cavalier has proved that her talents are independent of her environment, acting as the anchor of clubs in the United States, Australia and Sweden. With the 2021 Olympics set to take place in Tokyo, Sonnett certainly hopes that she can add one more country to her list of worldwide domination.
Defender Becky Sauerbrunn
After being named the 2003 Gatorade Player of the Year, USWNT captain and defender Becky Sauerbrunn jumped onto the scene as a freshman in Charlottesville, playing and starting in all 21 of the Cavaliers’ regular season games. In her next three years with Virginia, Sauerbrunn was the measure of consistency, making 69 appearances and leading the squad to several extended campaigns in the NCAA Tournament. Yet, even before she was earning the Cavaliers clean sheet after clean sheet, at 14 years old Sauerbrunn had already caught the eyes of the national team.
Now, at 35 years old, Sauerbrunn has spent more of her life in the U.S. soccer system than out of it. Although she did not make her first Senior National Team appearance until she was 23, as a teenager Sauerbrunn collected over 10 years of crucial experience, annually competing with the best the United States had to offer in the realm of women’s youth soccer. She even missed her entire sophomore season in Charlottesville to prepare for and play in the 2004 FIFA U-19 Women’s World Championship in Thailand.
Far removed from her days in Charlottesville, this summer Sauerbrunn will once again represent the United States on the international stage as captain of the USWNT. A member of the national team squad in three consecutive World Cups and two straight Olympics, Sauerbrunn will command the backline as she continues to make history as the 14th most capped USWNT player ever.
With opportunities to represent their respective countries on the international stage this summer, July and August cannot come soon enough for these four former Cavaliers. At the same time, four months may prove to be too short as the Gold Cup and Olympic committees scramble to prepare for these events in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As with many sporting events in the past year and a half, for the Gold Cup and the Summer Olympics to run smoothly, planners of these events must balance the safety of the athletes amidst the uncertainty of the virus. Given the strict timeline for these events, if matches cannot be carried out safely and have to be postponed, both competitions may have to come to terms with cancellation. Likewise, each organization must also reckon with the possibility of community spread and the attitudes of the host communities towards bringing in thousands of individuals from across the world.
While the Olympics are currently slated to take place in Tokyo, Japan, the host city of the Gold Cup has yet to be announced. With both competitions inviting athletes from across the world to stay in these designated cities for an extended period of time, citizens from these host countries may be wary of possible super-spreader scenarios. In fact, according to a survey conducted by the Japanese broadcaster NHK, nearly 80 percent of Japanese citizens polled believed that the Olympics should be postponed or canceled entirely.
Yet, despite the uncertainty surrounding these international soccer competitions this summer, from the NBA bubble to the Australian Open, sports have found a way to prevail during this pandemic, albeit in somewhat unique circumstances. Consequently, the question for the organizers of the Gold Cup and Summer Olympics may not be so much about what precautions they are going to take, but rather how strictly and to what degree these precautions will be enforced. For Dike, Etienne, Sonnett and Sauerbrunn, more precautions may mean less freedom. However, making these sacrifices could be necessary if the former Cavaliers want to return to soccer’s highest stage.