One of American soccer’s most decorated stars is changing teams. Two-time World Cup winner and three-time NWSL defender of the year Becky Sauerbrunn is moving from the Utah Royals to the Portland Thorns in a trade announced Tuesday.
The 34-year-old central defender missed out on the NWSL best XI for the first time ever last season, but is still universally regarded as one of the league’s best players. However, her window to chase titles is clearly closing, and Utah is not expected to compete for the NWSL championship this season.
Given its predicament, Utah was willing to get something for Sauerbrunn while it had the opportunity. The return — defender Elizabeth Ball and $100,000 in allocation money — suggests the Royals still hope to be competitive in the short term. The deal could become a win-win for both teams, depending on how they continue to manage their rosters.
Sauerbrunn fills a big need for Portland
This offseason, Portland made the difficult decision to trade United States Women’s National Team defender Emily Sonnett to the Orlando Pride in a deal for the No. 1 overall draft pick, which it turned into Sophia Smith. It made sense for Portland to give up a lot to get a prospect of Smith’s caliber, but the trade created a gap in the back.
Ball, who should compete for a starting spot in Utah, is a solid young player, but a clear downgrade from Sonnett. Katherine Reynolds and Emily Menges are capable starters, but both have faced numerous injury problems. Gabby Seiler has deputized well at center back, but arguably has a higher ceiling at both left back and defensive midfield, and has also suffered multiple injuries.
At the draft, Thorns head coach Mark Parsons said the club was in negotiations with multiple internationally experienced defenders. However, none arrived before Europe’s January transfer window shut, making it unlikely one will arrive before the summer. If Portland is going to compete with North Carolina Courage and Chicago Red Stars for the NWSL Shield and No. 1 seed in the playoffs, it needed to sign an experienced defender as soon as possible, and Sauerbrunn clearly fits the bill.
This deal probably doesn’t quite make Portland a favorite for the Shield over North Carolina, as good as Sauerbrunn is. Portland needs some injury luck within its group of injury-prone defenders and Smith to have a great rookie season and a top-class international signing to feel like its team is better than the Courage on paper. But there’s no question they’ve become a better team.
Utah’s rebuild starts now, but do they know that?
Former Utah head coach and current USWNT Under-20 boss Laura Harvey is a great culture-builder, but not much of a roster builder. Her Seattle teams that competed for titles deteriorated over her time in charge, leaving her successor, Vlatko Andonovski, with a huge rebuild. In Utah, Craig Harrington is in the same situation. Harvey’s distaste for draft picks has left the cupboard bare.
Utah has a whopping nine players who are 30 or older, even after Sauerbrunn’s departure, and they are among the club’s most important players. That experience notably didn’t help the club down the stretch last season when Utah collapsed, losing four of its last five matches to blow its chance to make the playoffs.
The only promising young prospect with pro experience currently on the team is 22-year-old Gaby Vincent, an undrafted free agent. Finding players as good as her outside of the first round is like hitting the lottery, and happens to about one team per season on average. Utah’s three draft picks from this year — Tziarra King, Kate Del Fava and Cyera Hintzen — were all high-risk, high-reward selections with big question marks surrounding them. All could become excellent starters, but none should be counted on to make immediate contributions.
This is a team that needs to smash the reset button. Acquiring Ball, a promising 24-year-old defender who has looked good in limited action, is a nice start. But Utah should have pushed to get other young players or draft picks for Sauerbrunn, rather than allocation money. My colleague Charles Olney at Stars and Stripes FC and Backline Soccer put it well in a tweet:
A sign of a stable and sustainable league is that declining teams are willing to sell old players so they can rebuild.— Charles Olney (@olneyce) February 25, 2020
I hope that's what Utah doing. I fear that they're selling one old player to get money to go buy a different old player.
The gap between Utah and the top three teams in the league is large, even if all nine of its 30-plus-year-old players manage to stay healthy. The Royals would need to sign multiple international superstars to put together a title-challenging lineup.
It’s time for Utah to tank. Straight up, Philadelphia 76ers, Trust The Process tank.
Harrington’s previous employers should serve as a model. He was an assistant to Rory Dames with the Red Stars, where he watched his boss masterfully pick up underrated prospects and first round picks from teams that were thinking short term. Dames slowly, but surely, built up the league’s deepest roster with one of the league’s smallest budgets, and now has a huge reserve of prospects and picks that should bolster the Red Stars for a long time.
If anyone calls asking about the availability of veterans like Amy Rodriguez, Desiree Scott or Rachel Corsie — who would be extremely valuable to fringe playoff contenders, like the Washington Spirit and Sky Blue FC — Utah should negotiate, and ask for rookies and draft picks in return. If the Royals double down on a playoff push with old players instead of selling them off to establish a young core for the future, the club is going to struggle for the foreseeable future.