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Breaking down the Olympic performances of three former Virginia soccer stars

Former Virginia women’s standouts in defenders Emily Sonnett and Becky Sauerbrunn claimed bronze for the United States, while former midfielder Joe Bell shined for New Zealand

<p>Former Virginia defender Becky Sauerbrunn captained the American women to a bronze medal finish at this year's Olympics.&nbsp;</p>

Former Virginia defender Becky Sauerbrunn captained the American women to a bronze medal finish at this year's Olympics. 

Three former Virginia soccer players appeared in the sport at the Tokyo Olympics. Combined, they played 966 minutes and registered a grand total of one shot, zero assists and zero goals. But all three players — American women Becky Sauerbrunn and Emily Sonnett and New Zealander Joe Bell — made contributions well beyond the box score. 

First, it’s worth explaining why there aren’t more current and former Cavalier soccer players in Tokyo. While the women’s tournament is conducted with normal squad rules, the men’s side is restricted so that 20 of the 23 players must be younger than 23 years of age. The age was raised to 24 for these Olympics due to the pandemic. 

The United States Men’s National Team did not qualify for the 2020 Olympics, instead competing in and winning the CONCACAF Gold Cup, led by former Virginia striker Daryl Dike. 

However, the Women’s National Team was present and ready to claim a fifth gold medal, which would have been their first gold since the 2012 London Olympics. Their previous outing at the 2016 Rio Olympics led to a disappointing fifth-place finish. Unlike the men’s tournament, the women’s competition was undertaken by only 12 teams and had no limits on the 23 available roster spots — most countries brought their entire A-teams.

It’s worth diving into the individual performances of former Cavaliers in Tokyo, starting with the women. 

Becky Sauerbrunn, Defender, USA

In four seasons as a Cavalier between 2003 and 2007, Sauerbrunn compiled 90 starts at defender and led Virginia to the NCAA tournament four times. After her final college season, she earned the first of her 193 international caps on January 16, 2008. Sauerbrunn would go on to register seven assists, a pair of World Cups and Olympic gold in London. 

In 2016, the St. Louis native was named captain of the USWNT, a position she carried into Tokyo 2020. In the tournament, Sauerbrunn played solid defense on the left of a back four and was fourth on the team in total minutes. While not directly responsible for any goals, the US did have a rather poor defensive showing, allowing three goals in multiple games and 10 total goals in 6 games — 9 goals in 5 games in matches where Sauerbrunn appeared.

Ultimately, the women lost to eventual gold medalists Canada in the semifinal and beat Australia 4-3 in a bronze medal thriller, giving Sauerbrunn her second Olympic medal. The defender is now 36 and will likely retire from international competition soon, with the next major women’s tournament being the 2023 World Cup.

Emily Sonnett, Defender, USA

Thankfully, if Sauerbrunn retires, another former Cavalier is as good a bet as any to replace her on defense. Emily Sonnett spent four years between 2012 and 2015 anchoring the Cavaliers’ back line and scoring soaring headers. In 2015, she was named team captain, earned her first international cap and led Virginia to the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament. In early 2016, the NWSL’s Portland Thorns took her first overall in the college draft, and she now plays for the Washington Spirit. 

In Tokyo, Sonnett was a peripheral figure, tallying no goals, assists or shots over 96 minutes. In her lone start, the right back played strong defense in a 6-1 rout of New Zealand and came on as a late sub to help subdue Australia to secure her first Olympic medal.

As the current American defense ages and Sonnett enters her prime, the former Cavalier has a shot at becoming a regular in time for the 2023 World Cup.

Joe Bell, Defensive Midfielder, New Zealand

Unlike the women on this list, Joe Bell did not play a full college career. In three seasons from 2017 to 2019, the Kiwi scored 10 goals and assisted 10 more. Bell also co-captained Virginia through their captivating 2019 NCAA tournament run, all the way through their devastating loss to Georgetown in the national championship. This earned him national player of the year honors from several outlets. After that season and a promising showing at the 2018 U-20 World Cup, Bell left school to sign with Norwegian side FK Viking, where he still plies his trade. 

Bell, still only 22, has two caps for the New Zealand National team, and was selected for the 2020 Olympic team. He featured heavily in Tokyo, playing every minute of all four games. The former Cavalier played at the base of the defensive midfield in New Zealand’s defense-oriented, counter-attacking approach. Bell shielded the defense from opposing attacks and started New Zealand’s own possessions as a central playmaker. 

New Zealand lost to Japan on penalties in the quarterfinals and failed to medal. However, a strong performance from Bell should see him named to the full New Zealand squad in the upcoming qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup. 

The successes of these three former Cavaliers in international play have further solidified Virginia as one of the premier men’s and women’s soccer programs in the country. Beyond the accolades of their alumni, the Cavalier men’s squad is just two years removed from a national championship game appearance and the women’s team comes into the 2021 season fresh off of a College Cup run last season — setting up Virginia soccer for bountiful success in the coming years.