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Despite concerns, Sauerbrunn and Dunn are anchoring a stellar USWNT defense

After their SheBelieves Cup victory, people voiced their concerns about the USWNT’s vulnerabilities defensively. The numbers show that the defense has actually been pretty great.

Winner’s Portraits: Final - 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup France Photo by Naomi Baker - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images

The U.S. Women’s National team became the first team to ever win the SheBelieves Cup in consecutive years after dismantling Argentina 6-0. They also became the only team to keep a clean sheet in all three matches of the competition in the SheBelieves Cup’s short history.

Yet fans of the USWNT walked away from the tournament feeling as though the team was vulnerable defensively and the U.S. may have been lucky not to concede. There is some truth to that; the USWNT were certainly fortunate to keep clean sheets in their first two matches. Most notably, people will point to two huge chances squandered by Canada’s Janine Beckie.

The USWNT accumulated an xG (expected goals) of 3.2. Canada had 1.3 xG. The USWNT allowed Canada considerably more opportunities than they normally allow teams. But based on the statistics, it wasn’t a poor defensive performance. Similarly, Brazil registered 0.9 xG to the U.S.’s 1.76 according to Opta.

“I’m really proud of the team, actually,” said Crystal Dunn after the win over Brazil, in response to the Equalizer’s Jeff Kassouf. “It’s funny because I think every time I’m on this team, wearing this shirt, I feel like everyone expects us to never have a shot on goal against us or no team to create a chance and I can sit here and say we played a great game. I think Brazil is a talented, talented group of players … We are able to not give teams anything easy and as a whole I think the team collectively defended well and played a great game.”

Brazil is an extremely talented team. They are led by one of the greatest players ever in Marta and one of the current best players in the world in Debinha. Canada didn’t have the same attacking threat as the Brazilians, but they are still a great squad despite some of the notable absences, like Christine Sinclair and Jordyn Huitema.

Brazil and Canada are top teams, tied at eighth in the FIFA rankings. Both are Olympic challengers and when top teams meet it is almost impossible to completely prevent chances. The USWNT limited them enough and came out on top again.

The U.S. has stayed at the top of the women’s game due to their dominance across every line of the field. People are quick to praise the forwards and midfielders, but the USWNT’s backline rarely gets the credit they deserve. They have been just as dominant as the rest of the team.

Two key cogs in that defense, under Jill Ellis and Vlatko Andonovski, have been Portland Thorns FC’s Becky Sauerbrunn and Crystal Dunn. Since the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup, the USWNT has played in four competitive tournaments: the World Cup, Concacaf Olympic Qualifying, and two SheBelieves Cups (the USWNT has also played a variety of friendlies in between these competitions). The U.S. has won all four competitions and Sauerbrunn and Dunn have been ever present along with Manchester City’s Abby Dahlkemper (17 appearances), Washington Spirit’s Kelly O’Hara (13 appearances), and goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher (15 appearances).

FIFA Women’s World Cup France 2019”Women: England v United States of America”

Of those 18 matches, Sauerbrunn and Dunn have started together in 12 times. Dunn played in 16 of the matches and Sauerbrunn featured in 15. Throughout 18 competitive matches in four competitions, the USWNT allowed four goals. Three of the four goals came in the 2019 World Cup. The U.S. allowed a goal by each of Spain, France, and England. The final goal came against Japan in the 2020 edition of the SheBelieves Cup.

This does not mean the defense is infallible. Some of the defensive performances throughout these competitions were dominant and some were less than convincing and prompted questions, much like the recent matches. The matches against Spain and England in the World Cup come to mind.

Despite all the worry about the back line in these matches the USWNT continued to win and continued to shut down world class opponents. During this stretch the U.S. played Spain in the World Cup and 2020 SheBelieves Cup and allowed one goal. Spain are currently ranked 12th in the world in FIFA’s rankings.

The USWNT played No. 5 Sweden once, No. 8 Brazil once, and No. 8 Canada twice, allowing no goals. Third-ranked France and sixth-ranked England each scored one goal against the U.S. in the World Cup. Finally, No. 10 Japan scored once in a 3-1 loss to the U.S.

The funny thing about watching the USWNT is they are so good people have to nitpick to find weaknesses. The U.S.’s defense has proven to be just as great as the midfield and forward line. Is there room to improve? Yes, there are always ways to improve and the U.S. will work to make everything as perfect as possible. That’s how they stay at the top of the world.