Becky Sauerbrunn (left) and Julie Johnston
American soccer star Abby Wambach hung up her cleats yesterday after a 1-0 loss to China in a World Cup victory tour. Her retirement caps a huge year for the US Women’s National Team, highlighted of course with winning the Women’s World Cup in July. The USWNT only only allowed three goals in seven games and had one of the best back lines at the World Cup. That dominance started with Becky Sauerbrunn and Julie Johnston, the United States’ yin and yang center backs.
Sports Illustrated Kids spoke to both women for our September issue about playing together in the World Cup. Here’s what they had to say:
What is the key to forging a center back partnership?
Becky Sauerbrunn: I think you have to complement each other well. You can’t have two players that are exactly the same. I think you need to have someone that, like for Julie and I, Jules is just a monster. She tackles hard, she wins like every single aerial battle, she blocks shots. For her, she was really good at interrupting the play that was in front of us. For me, I’m more kind of, Okay read the situation, be a little bit more of a pessimist and kind of figure out where plays could go wrong and people could get through. So I was more protecting the space and behind. I think we complemented each other really well in that aspect.
Would you consider yourself more of the traditional sweeper, or the fail-safe, at least?
Sauerbrunn: I wouldn’t say traditional, because I think the both of us are not really traditional center backs. But I was definitely kind of more — I would clean up after everything, where she was kind of the one that was creating the destruction.
Julie, what’s the biggest thing that playing alongside Becky taught you?
Julie Johnston: I think the biggest one is probably just the whole trust factor and getting us all on the same page. It’s really awesome to have someone that you play next to that is just so confident and brings it to the back line and understands the game well. That’s the biggest thing that I think, playing next to her just brings you confidence. She’s so good on the ball and understands the game so well that, yeah, it makes you just… I mean, I love playing against her. Being on the same page is the biggest thing in thing in the back line.
Becky, what would you say Julie’s biggest strength is?
Sauerbrunn: I would say she plays beyond her years. She went into the World Cup not having a lot of caps, but she was such a pro and she kind of fit into tat backline so seamlessly. I mean, that can be confidence, but I also think it’s just her. She’s just an amazing soccer player in all facets of the game. She’s got the technique, the tactics, the IQ, the mentality. She’s just, like, the complete package. I think it takes a really bright and talented person to kind of fit into a backline unit with not much experience with the rest of us and then play at such an elite level at the World Cup and play so well. Because she had an amazing tournament. So, I’m not quite sure how you would pinpoint that.
What would you say to young girls playing soccer that like playing defense?
Johnston: Well, it’s actually funny because I did grow up as an attacking player. I have a different respect for what it takes to be a defender, and it definitely doesn’t go unnoticed by your teammates, and that’s what matters most. Especially at the end of the game when players on your team come up to you and say, “Wow, you helped this game so much, you really helped the team in this sense.” It definitely doesn’t go unnoticed, especially with people that know the sport. You do what you love, and it’s a team sport, and that’s why you do it. You play so much better when you do what you love. I love to play soccer, and to be able to play on this team and be a defender here is just an honor. That’s what I would say. And defenders can score sometimes too.
What’s your favorite part of your own game?
Johnston: I love winning tackles and winning balls in the air. Those are probably my first two. I also love scoring.
Becky, why should young girls play defense instead of forward or midfield? What’s your pitch?
Sauerbrunn: What’s my pitch? Okay. I think because soccer is such a team sport, you don’t really get that a lot when it comes to attacking. Yeah sure, you get combinations. But a lot of attacking is individual player and brilliance. When it comes to defending, it’s more the people around you and the chemistry around you and working as a unit. And I think that’s pretty rare. You’re only going to be as successful as the people around you. So, I rely on everyone else to make me look good, and they rely on me to make them look good. I think that’s kind of the epitome of the team sport: having someone’s back, and them having yours.
Photos: Brian Bahr/Getty Images (Sauerbrunn), Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photo/Getty Images (Johnston)