USWNT defender Becky Sauerbrunn thanks her childhood hero, Carla Overbeck
USWNT Becky Sauerbrunn will never forget the day she watched Carla Overbeck lead the 99ers to a World Cup title. Now, as she tries to win a second World Cup of her own, she says thank you to the captain who taught her how to lead.
The first time I saw you, I was 14. It was 1999, and I traveled with a couple of my club teammates from St. Louis to Chicago to watch the U.S. women's national team play Nigeria in the World Cup group stage. There's something so powerful about seeing soccer live, witnessing the nuances and subtleties of the players that can go unnoticed on the TV. Even at a young age I was drawn to those understated aspects of the game. My friends were into the players that had a louder on-field presence like Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy and Brandi Chastain. You were efficient, smart, competitive. All the things I wanted to be as a player.
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I never expected that almost 20 years later we'd actually meet. But in 2017, when I was in North Carolina for an NWSL game, a mutual friend set up dinner at an Italian place near where you coach at Duke. Of course I was nervous. Not only had I styled my game around you, but I had grown up in the system that you and your teammates had basically created from the success of that 1999 World Cup. To sit across from you, eating pasta and sharing a bottle of wine with our mutual friends was totally bizarre, but in the most wonderful way.
I was stepping into a leadership position with the national team, and you had captained the team for so many years, so we talked a lot about learning how to lead. It was refreshing to hear that the concerns and struggles the current team was dealing with were the same ones your team went through. You helped me realize it wasn't a unique experience that we were going through. The hardest part of being a leader is trying to get everyone on the same page about how to reach a goal. We all want to be the best in the world, but it's difficult to get 23 women to agree on how we get there. I can see people getting frustrated, I can see people getting down on themselves, I can see the environment wearing people down. A huge part of our identity as the USWNT is we aren't afraid to share our scars. It's meant figuratively, but we don't shy away from showing our physical wounds either. The best advice you gave me was to accept that I can't please everyone, to pick my battles wisely and to understand that I can't lead on my own. Find the people who have your back at all times, you told me. I did, and it helped lift the weight off my shoulders.
One of those people is Megan Rapinoe. I've known her since I was 16 and have always appreciated how different we are. It's hard to think of a player with a louder presence than Pinoe. Where my leadership style is setting a good example and learning each player's motivations, her style is more vocal and emotional. It's amazing to have a friend like her in this high-stakes environment, to have someone push you and your team's comfort level. The progress we're making as a team grows every day. We no longer try to justify criticisms away. We're more willing to listen, to accept problems and discuss solutions.
We also talked about how you were a leader in striking the first collective bargaining agreement with U.S. Soccer that allowed the team to make a livable wage from playing. We wouldn't be here today if you hadn't had the courage to boycott a tournament in Australia six months after winning the World Cup until you got better pay and more security for younger players. We are building off that foundation today with our equal-pay lawsuit. We're going to continue to close the gap between the men and the women. True success is when there is no difference. That's when we will have done our job, when the need for trailblazing is no more because equal pay for equal work will have become the norm.
Our USWNT players association had its first-ever alumni reunion in April, and although you were unable to come, your presence was still felt. Your teammates waxed poetic about you. Lorrie Fair told me a story at brunch that was like a clip from every sports movie where you just get hyped. A terrible training session where the coach calls, "Get on the line." You run and run. You and your teammates collapse on the floor, breathing hard. And then you yell, "Get on the line! We're going to do some more." The fact that the girls got up and ran more just shows what a true leader you were. If I tried to do that, the team would mutiny. All that scene needs is your teammates cheering, "Carla! Carla! Carla!"
So thank you for being you, for being a text away should I ever have a question or am in need of encouragement. The '99ers are the reason I am playing in this World Cup today. I had the motivation as a young player to be great, you showed me what greatness looks like. -- As told to Elaine Teng