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NWSL KICKOFF 2016: An exclusive chat with Becky Sauerbrunn

We spoke with the World Cup winner and back-to-back NWSL champ about the growth of the women's game, soccer culture in Kansas City, and whether she'd be OK with renaming the league's Defender of the Year award in her honor.

Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Back in November, we were honored to speak three-time NWSL Defender of the Year Becky Sauerbrunn about her exemplary soccering life. With the fourth season of the National Women's Soccer League set to kick off this weekend, we can think of no greater spokeswoman to help us usher in another season of women's club soccer in America.

This chat took place well before Sauerbrunn and four other members of the U.S. Women's National Team filed a federal complaint against the U.S. Soccer Federation over unequal pay practices. That's a vitally important story, and SB Nation has you covered from tip to tail.

Here's the full transcript of our talk, lightly edited for clarity.

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Hudson River Blue: What do you make of all the public attention that's erupted since you won the World Cup?

Becky Sauerbrunn: When I was 14, I was watching the 99ers win at the Rose Bowl, and that was the moment I knew I wanted to be on the National Team. That was when I wanted to experience what they had experienced on the field, and I didn't know that all this other stuff came with it.

Me, personally, I'm not a big media person. I'm not an extrovert. I'm very introverted. But it's been all such wonderful experiences. Getting to do a ticker-tape parade, and have rallies in LA, and getting to go the ESPYs, and things like that, and do BlazerCon. So it's all wonderful things that I'm learning to really enjoy and appreciate because it's making people more aware of our team, and I think that's really important for the future of women in sports.

HRB: Can you see this buzz around the women's game becoming more of a typical thing, something you can start to wrap your head around?

BS: I hope it stays. I hope it gets worse. I hope that more and more people want us.

I feel like something special about our team is that we're very approachable, and I think that everyone has kind of this niche that they fill that's pretty different from men's sports, so I feel like we can branch out on all these different things, so I think we can kinda continue all this craziness.

HRB: When FOX started showing NWSL games, that was a huge step forward. How do you continue to spread the word about the club game in this country between World Cups and the Olympics? How do you bridge that gap?

BS: I think that it's TV deals, so we can get games put on the national channels, so people can see that. I also think that it's down to ownership groups and front offices marketing us properly. And that's an expense that sometimes gets put on the side, because we're operating under very strict budgets, and marketing costs money.

So TV ads, even putting us out in the community and doing kind of grassroots marketing where we're going to tournaments and things like that, we need to get more sponsors. So, there's separate little things. When we add that together, it'll make a difference.

HRB: Do you see Major League Soccer and its cachet – whether it's sponsors or ownership groups or the media apparatus – having a role to play in this continued growth of the NWSL?

BS: Absolutely, and I think you've seen it with Orlando [Pride] coming in; they're affiliated with Orlando City. And then teams like Portland, who have the Timbers-- those teams tend to do better in attendance, do better in marketing. So I think as much as we can [do] to affiliate ourselves with MLS, I think it'll help us in the long run to become more sustainable.

HRB: It seems to be no accident what FC Kansas City has done.  What does it mean to be a part of this ever-expanding soccer tradition in KC, especially with Sporting winning the US Open Cup around the exact same time that your FC team was able to go back-to-back?

BS: It's great. It's great to be a part of a tradition like that in Kansas City, which is a huge sports town in general, not just soccer. But to have soccer be kind of one of the major sports in the city – and obviously having the Royals winning [the World Series] is huge--

HRB: Yeah, that's just like... "stop it. Come on."

BS: Unbelievable. But I think you could see that soccer isn't a fringe sport in Kansas City; it's actually, I would say one of the major sports in the town. So it's great to be a part of that and to continue a winning tradition as well.

HRB: OK, how many years in a row have you won the Defender of the Year award in NWSL?

BS: Three.

HRB: Nobody else has won it!

BS: No. Three seasons of the NSWL.

HRB: Are they going to re-christen the award as the Becky Sauerbrunn NWSL Defender of the Year Award while you're still playing, or after you've retired? Because they waited until after Landon Donovan retired to name the MLS MVP award after him.

BS: I don't think it'll happen, but...

HRB: I'm just preparing you for it.

BS: I hope that does not happen!

To win that, three years, even this last year when I was gone for half the games and so I didn't feel that I deserved it, necessarily, because there were so many great defenders that were there every single game – that played on my team as well – it was obviously an honor to get it again, but it was an interesting year, for sure.

HRB: Who are some of the top defenders in the league who maybe don't get that international call? Who's in the Pantheon of NWSL defenders?

BS: Amy LePeilbet. She's already had a really long and successful national team career. Leigh Ann Brown, I've consistently thought that she's been one of the best outside backs in the league, and I think she's gotten a few caps with the national team and shone very well, so I was sad when she retired, because I was like, "oh, I feel like you're so close." I think there's young talent in Portland, when you look at [Emily] Menges or a Kat Williamson, some players that just need a shot. It's hard to break into the national team, to get a call-up for that roster. And I know firsthand how hard it can be sometimes. It's tough. But there are definitely players that, should a gap arise with the national team, that the NWSL has done a great job cultivating.

HRB: Going back to the national team situation, there had been some coaching changes leading up to the World Cup year, as well as questions about how to overcome particular injuries, about how to hit your stride at exactly the right time. And even during the tournament, there were some hiccups, especially in the group stage. What did Jill Ellis bring to the team, at the end of the day, that allowed all of this success to take place?

BS: I think she adapted as the tournament went on. We had yellow card accumulation, people suspended for games, and she saw that. Putting Morgan Brian into the midfield, pushing Carli [Lloyd] up higher, really changed the dynamic of our team.

"I feel like something special about our team is that we're very approachable, and I think that everyone has this niche that they fill that's pretty different from men's sports. I feel like we can branch out on all these different things so we can kinda continue all this craziness."

And I think you would find that most coaches, when the suspensions were over, would have gone back to what had gotten them through the Group of Death. But I think she saw something and was willing to take the risk the next game, to keep Morgan in and to push Carli high, and I think to be brave enough to do that is something that is kudos to her, credit to her to have enough faith in those players to play those positions.

HRB: Carli's special. A lot of us are still getting to know her a bit. What's something we might not understand about Carli Lloyd that would help us get a fuller picture of that particular brilliance, that particular flavor?

BS: The soccer is the most important thing. Everything on the side – the social media, the sponsorship deals – it doesn't matter to her. She would be playing if we had to pay for our own flights to get there, if we had to pay for our own hotels. She just loves the sport of soccer. And all this other stuff right now is like icing on the cake for her, but when it comes down to it, she'd much rather be on the field training than doing anything else.

HRB: And the proof is in the pudding. You can see it, just to have the vision alone... "well, she's kinda coming off her line, she's definitely not very tall..."

BS: "Yeah, I think I'm gonna wail it from half-field."

HRB: Could anybody else score one like that in a game? I mean, [Megan] Rapinoe's a playmaker. She's brilliant.

BS: I could see her doing that.

HRB: To have the presence of mind...

BS: You see it in some players: they're just lights-out. They're reading the game, they're doing whatever they wanna do on the ball, and sometimes you're lucky and that falls on a game day. Most of us, that falls on a training day. Luckily for Carli, it fell on the World Cup championship day.

HRB: Last question-- everybody likes to ask the top athletes who they looked up to when they were growing up. But who do you look up to now?

BS: Someone that I have always looked to is Steve Swanson. He was my coach at the University of Virginia. He was also the assistant coach with the national team at the World Cup over the summer. And I just look up to him because he was teaching the game, the way it's played now, when I was sixteen. He had the foresight to see where the game was going, and to teach that to, you know, sixteen-year-olds, it's paid dividends now. Especially for me. I feel like he's prepared me so well for the way the game has changed that I can easily adapt to it as well.

HRB: Is he still at Virginia?

BS: Yes, he's probably been there now for thirteen years. Twelve, thirteen years.

HRB: That's impressive.

BS: And the team, Virginia, has gotten better and better every year. [In 2015] they lost to FSU in the ACC Championship, whereas when I was there, we hardly ever made it to the final game of the ACC Championship, and they're #1 in the nation and things like that. I think that's just a credit to him and his coaching.

HRB: That's all I've got. Thank you so much for doing this, and for everything else that you've done! I mean, the U.S. men's team is on national TV even when they play St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Like, that's a thing. But this is America-- we're supposed to be the best at stuff! I really like it when we're the best at something.

BS: I do, too.

SD: Thank you for that.

BS: No problem.