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Sauerbrunn's cerebral presence in center has USWNT on verge of title

She doesn't get as much attention as some of her teammates, but the USWNT's Becky Sauerbrunn has arguably been the best player at the Women's World Cup. She looks to key one last lockdown performance in the final against Japan.

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — When U.S. defender Becky Sauerbrunn takes the field in the Women’s World Cup final on Sunday (6 p.m. ET, FOX), she will be doing so not just as the most underrated player in this tournament but, I would argue, as the most outstanding player of WWC 2015 as well.

You wouldn’t have known that from the short list of eight players released by FIFA for the Golden Ball, given to the tournament’s top individual. Three U.S. players made the list—Carli Lloyd, Megan Rapinoe and Julie Johnston—and if the U.S. wins on Sunday, it’s almost certain the award will go to Lloyd, who has indeed been fantastic in the knockout rounds.

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But Sauerbrunn, the U.S.’s 30-year-old center back, has been at the center of the U.S.’s remarkable defensive performance, allowing just one goal in the entire tournament (and none over the past 513 minutes of play).

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Sauerbrunn has been what might seem like an oxymoron at first: a subtle force in the back. While Johnston may stand out more for her swashbuckling style—and let’s be honest, Johnston has been a monster in this World Cup—Sauerbrunn has more of a cerebral game. If it doesn’t always look like she’s straining, that’s by design. She’s just so damn good at knowing where to be on the field.

“I know that I’m not the fastest or the strongest or the best in the air,” Sauerbrunn said here on Friday, “so from a very early age I had to be positionally sound or I was going to get beat. So you just kind of learn as you grow. I’ve had amazing coaches like Mark Krikorian [on the U.S. under-19 team] and Steve Swanson [at the University of Virginia and as a U.S. assistant] who really emphasize position defense. I’ve watched so many clips, and so the more you do it the better you get at it. So I feel very confident.”

Sauerbrunn is from St. Louis, one of the most fabled hotbeds of U.S. soccer over the last century, and there’s something fitting about the way she now fits into the grand tradition of the historic players who hailed from her home city. Five of the 11 starters from the 1950 U.S. World Cup team that beat England came from St. Louis, including defender Harry Keough and goalkeeper Frank Borghi, who both passed away in the last three years but left a legacy that touched Sauerbrunn as well.

“The gentlemen who played on that World Cup that still lived in that area, they were still very involved in youth soccer,” Sauerbrunn said. “I don’t get back to St. Louis very often, but we’ll host dinners with the Keoughs [Harry’s son, Ty, also played for the U.S.] and things like that.”

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Sauerbrunn’s career arc has been one of accomplishment, but also persistence. She wasn’t a first-choice starter at age 26 for the last World Cup, where she played behind Rachel Buehler, though Sauerbrunn did have a terrific semifinal after Buehler had gotten a red card in the previous game. A year later in the 2012 Olympics, Sauerbrunn made three appearances as a sub, but she never totally won over then coach Pia Sundhage, who didn’t view her as a complete player.

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​“When I started with the national team, it was made very clear I was going to be the backup to Christie Rampone and Rachel Buehler,” said Sauerbrunn. “So for the first few years it was just me training my heart out and pushing those centerbacks to be the best they could be. When Tom Sermanni took over [in 2013], it was kind of a new slate and everyone was being evaluated. No one had any leverage over anybody else. It was all even.

“With him I got more playing time and got to show what I can do … Then when Jill [Ellis] took over that kept carrying on. But I still had moments when my form dipped and someone else was playing better.”

Sauerbrunn played in three of the five U.S. games in last fall’s World Cup qualifying tournament, alternating with Rampone and Whitney Engen, but with those two players injured in March at the Algarve Cup, the central pairing became Sauerbrunn and Johnston. And it hasn’t changed ever since.

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“Becky is as valuable [as any U.S. player],” Ellis said on Friday. “She stepped into a leadership role. Christie was always the leader on the back line. [Sauerbrunn’s] leadership role has been fantastic, her mentoring of players has been fantastic. She’s a great personality, and she always keeps it upbeat and positive.”

As for being snubbed by FIFA for the Golden Ball, well, Sauerbrunn can take some solace in that she’s the choice of a lot of people who watch the games closely. “I was just happy that three players out of the eight were American, so we’re well represented,” she said. “All three of them absolutely deserve to be on there. Would it have been an honor to be on that list? Absolutely. But I can’t control it.”

Then again, she has a chance to control whether the U.S. wins the World Cup on Sunday. And that's all the motivation that anyone could need.