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Laura Seitz, KSL

Utah Royals FC stars returning from World Cup to face new challenge: sell NWSL to USA

By Sean Walker, KSL.com | Posted - Jul. 17, 2019 at 7:02 p.m.



SANDY — Utah Royals FC defender Becky Sauerbrunn remembers well the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup.

Her third World Cup overall, it’s not just remembered for the 2-0 win over the Netherlands in the final, or the 2-1 victory over host France in the quarterfinals.

It’s more than a second-consecutive World Cup title for Sauerbrunn, or a fourth star on the team’s uniforms.

It’s a special team, Sauerbrunn remembered, all 23 of the players on the roster —From head coach Jill Ellis to breakout star Megan Rapinoe, to reserves like Utah teammate Christen Press and Carli Lloyd. Then there's goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, who answered all of her critics (and then some) with a fantastic performance in goal, allowing just three goals all tournament and saving a vital penalty kick in the semifinals against England.

Even when the rest of the world was against them, or for them, or railing them for reasons that had little (if anything) to do with soccer — President Donald Trump tweeting at Rapinoe and cable television pundits criticizing the Stars and Stripes for a 13-0 rout of tournament debutant Thailand — Sauerbrunn and the Nats built up a cocoon around themselves, around the locker room, and around what may arguably be the best women’s national team in U.S. Soccer history.

But occasionally something penetrated that cocoon. The aforementioned presidential tweets, questions about Naeher and the back line, and weekly matches back home in the National Women’s Soccer League where every player plies their trade professionally and every team had matches for all but two weeks of the 60-day World Cup.

Utah Royals' Kelley O'Hara and Becky Sauerbrunn talk to the media about the United States' victory in the FIFA Women’s World Cup and their return to the Royals at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy on Wednesday, July 17, 2019. (Photo: Laura Seitz, KSL)

“Obviously, when the president is tweeting at one of your players, it can puncture the bubble,” Sauerbrunn admitted. “But the team did a really good job of acknowledging it and tossing it away.

“We focused on the things that we could control within that bubble and protecting ourselves that way.”

Their final response? Scoreboard.

“Listen; gold is gold, man,” Royals star and U.S. starter Kelley O’Hara said with a laugh.

While the United States was watching the World Cup, its stars were watching the NWSL, a league to which they will return Friday against the Portland Thorns (8 p.m. MDT, KSL.com and Yahoo Sports).

“We would keep an eye on it and always talk with the national team (players) about our clubs,” Sauerbrunn said. “The games were played in the middle of the night (in France), and we’d go to breakfast, see the results, the highlights, the scoreboard, and talk about it — even tease others about it. I didn’t have a VPN, so I couldn’t watch if I wanted to more. But we definitely knew (what was going on back home).”

O’Hara even remembers waking up in the middle of the night, still wired from the quarterfinal victory over France and buzzing to find out how the Royals were playing back home. She used the only source she knew to get updates, and one that is common among fans of American soccer: Twitter.

“I remember waking up at 2 a.m., checking Twitter to see what the score was, but knowing I had to go to bed,” the Utah Royals fullback said. “I was definitely paying attention.”

The United States proved a lot of people wrong by winning their second-straight World Cup. Surprisingly underrated as the top-ranked team in FIFA’s women’s soccer rankings prior to the tournament, the USA blazed through group play before surviving a European gauntlet of Spain, France, England and the Netherlands to lay claim on a fourth overall title.

Yes, the United States essentially had to win the Euro to grasp victory on another World Cup. The Stars and Stripes were rooted against at almost every turn — even from U.S. media before their first game, when they answered questions about a back line that showed rust in friendlies leading up to the tournament and inexperienced goalkeeper in Naeher.

“I told Becky, ‘I’m so tired of the media asking how the back line is going to fare. We need to shut them down to shut them up,’” O’Hara recalled one conversation. “After the final, we took a picture, because we shut everybody down and we shut everybody up. I’m really proud of that and the way we stuck together and prevailed.”

The next step may be even more monumental than the last for the U.S. national teamers, who are all returning to their club teams in time for the weekend’s NWSL matches. It doesn’t involve winning a title, celebrating with champagne in the locker room, or even overcoming the host nation in a World Cup.

It’s selling soccer to the American public.

Utah Royals FC defender Kelley O'Hara (5) takes a shot on goal against the Washington Spirit at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy on Saturday, April 20, 2019. (Photo: Silas Walker, KSL)

With standout ratings on Fox and the top ranking in the world that will likely carry over at least until next year’s Summer Olympics in Tokyo, the United States women’s national team now has to sell the NWSL.

Things are getting better domestically; questions about a national television contract, abruptly cancelled after the second of a three-year contract, have been answered by a 14-game deal with ESPN. Budweiser also enhanced its commitment to U.S. Soccer by becoming the first major national sponsor of the NWSL, with naming rights to the league championship, playoffs and MVP trophy, to boot.

But the responsibility to sell the league doesn’t just fall on NWSL president Amandy Duffy and her staff.

“I think the responsibility falls on both,” Sauerbrunn said. “As players, we have platforms that the league doesn’t have quite yet, and it’s a responsibility for us to promote the league in the best way possible.

“We know the importance this league is for preparing the national team, but there are also so many players who don’t play for their national teams.”

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