Steve Swanson has spent nearly three decades around women’s soccer, but the World Cup still proved to be an eye-opening experience for the long-time Virginia coach. That fact remained evident in Swanson’s voice as he reflected on the United States’ World Cup victory.
A mix of appreciation and awe colored Swanson’s thoughts about the two-month journey in Canada where he worked as an assistant coach for the U.S. Women’s National Team. The team captured the World Cup championship with a 5-2 win against Japan in the final.
“It’s almost like a PhD in soccer,” Swanson said. “You’re around some of the best players in the world. You’re interacting with the staff that you’re learning from every day both on and off the field. When I was immersed in it, you’re gaining all of this information. … I know that over the past year that I’ve been involved with the team, I’ve gained an enormous amount of information and have built my knowledge base. I think these are things that hopefully will help me now as I continue to coach. It was an amazing experience.”
Two of Swanson’s former players at Virginia played an important role in the World Cup and that certainly sweetened the experience. Becky Sauerbrunn started every game and played every minute of the tournament as a defender, while Morgan Brian emerged as a key figure in the midfield during the knockout rounds as the U.S. surged to win the championship.
Sauerbrunn suited up for the Cavaliers from 2003 to 2007 and was a three-time All-American. She also was named the ACC Defensive Player of the Year in 2007. Brian played at UVa from 2011 to 2014 where she not only earned All-American recognition, but twice won the Hermann Trophy, just the fifth woman to win the award for the nation’s best player twice.
“I’m very happy for those two and I’m also very happy because I think the things I’ve known and seen over my time working with them, the whole world now sees and that’s a good thing,” Swanson said. “I’m probably their biggest fans. I root for them probably the most in some senses so it was easy for me to see all their qualities, not just as players but as people. There’s a certain satisfaction now that the world can see it.”
Sauerbrunn proved to be the rock of the U.S. back line in the World Cup as the defense allowed just three goals in the entire tournament. That included a streak of 539 minutes without allowing a goal, just one minute shy of the World Cup record.
Along the way, Sauerbrunn’s solid play was overshadowed at times by the flashier style of newcomer Julie Johnston. The initial Golden Ball shortlist included Johnston as a contender on it and not Sauerbrunn. That oversight, however, quickly brought out just how important the Virginia star has been for the U.S. Women’s National Team as analysts across the television landscape and throughout the media immediately began to dissect the snub.
The resounding conclusion? Sauerbrunn doesn’t need to make spectacular tackles or clears in the back because she’s often in such good position; she doesn’t get beat on defense in the first place. Swanson, who has coached Sauerbrunn in different capacities since she was a 15 year old on the Under-16 National Team, has witnessed that ability up close for a long time though.
“I’ve said this before, Becky has qualities as a defender and as a soccer player that I think to the average fan are hard to discern,” Swanson said. “Nobody is going to say wow, that kid times her tackles amazingly well or that kid’s positioning in the back four is some of the best I’ve ever seen. It just doesn’t happen. But, she was amazingly consistent for us at Virginia in doing those same things and she’s been consistent with the National Team for a long time. The strengths that she has, the qualities that she has as a player and I’m including her brain and thought process, all of those things were critical to our success and I think were critical to our success at Virginia.”
That all of those remarkable qualities were highlighted during the World Cup? Swanson couldn’t be happier about it.
“There’s just no better person in terms of how much she values the team – it’s never been about her – and she’s only interested in getting better and she has gotten better,” Swanson said. “To see her perform the way she did and to see America and the world embrace her the way they have has left a smile on my face.”
While Sauerbrunn’s arrival in to the National Team spotlight took some time, Brian’s ascension to the world stage happened much more rapidly. The 22 year old was playing in her first World Cup, but quickly became a key factor in the U.S. title. After a pair of red cards in the opening game of knockout play forced a line-up shuffle for the team. That’s when coach Jill Ellis decided to re-arrange her formations and insert Brian as a holding midfielder.
That move immediately put Swanson and Brian in a position to work together again. After Brian started in the group stage on the right wing, the move to the center midfield reunited her with Swanson, who had responsibility as the assistant coach for that line at the World Cup. The two worked together to prepare Brian for the role.
“It gave me an opportunity to stay connected with Mo and we did a lot watching film,” Swanson said. “She’s a good student of the game and knew what her role was going to be and she accepted it. I thought she played a huge part in the team, especially the last three games down the stretch when we needed her the most.”
The shift proved to be the spark the U.S. Women’s National Team needed. After struggling in early rounds to get the attack into the flow consistently, the team clearly needed someone in the midfield to connect the Sauerbrunn-led defense with the attack. While Brian had never really played as a holding midfielder for long stretches of time, she seemed to be the best option because of her touch and acute awareness of space. She delivered in a big way.
The attack immediately came to life against China in the quarterfinals. In the semifinals, Brian helped the Americans stay even against the technically sound German team as well as she won the ball individually 16 times (with 10 interceptions and six successful tackles) according to this Washington Post article. In the title game against Japan, Brian had an assist on the final goal by Tobin Heath.
When you consider her more natural attacking instincts, her play was truly remarkable. Brian, of course, is the only player in Virginia history with 40 goals and 40 assists with 125 points in her Cavalier career (41 goals, 43 assists). To see such superior play from such a young player on such a big stage even impressed Swanson, who has seen her ability up close for years.
“Obviously if you’ve been around Virginia soccer, you know what a great attacking force Morgan is but I think in this tournament she had to link the midfield and the front line, she had to link the back line, she had to make good decisions,” Swanson said. “I think she gave Carli Lloyd a little more freedom to get forward and attack and I think the same things with Lauren Holiday. I think her impact, again, though you might not see it statistically speaking was critical to the success of the team.”
That success resulted in a World Cup crown, but the reality of the moment is still settling in for Swanson.
“It’s starting to. When you’re in it, you’re sort of in this bubble there and you’re going 90 miles an hour,” Swanson said. “You win one game and you really have about two seconds to reflect on it and then you’re getting ready for the next game. I’m still kind of in that mode a little bit. … I think I will over the next week or so and it will sink in a little bit more.”