By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — More than half of the 23 players selected to represent the United States in the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup were not on the team that won the tournament four years ago.

The nine U.S. players with World Cup experience include University of Virginia alumna Emily Sonnett. Not until recently, Sonnett said, had she heard herself referred to as a veteran, but she’s ready to be a resource for teammates who are new to the world stage.

“If they ask questions then I can hopefully help, whether that’s on field or off field, literally anything,” Sonnett said last week. “But I do feel a little bit [older], only because I’m almost turning 30.”

The second time around, Sonnett said, “I think you kind of realize what works and what doesn’t work, personally, but also [there is familiarity with] how the World Cup works off the field, like with the media and how you’re traveling between, how you’re recovering between games. I think having that knowledge, it’s a little more settling … I remember being at my first World Cup, it’s just so new and the world’s eyes are on you, so that obviously helps me being familiar with it going into the second one.”

Sonnett, who’ll turn 30 in late November, is a 5-foot-6 defender who’s not used to being the only Wahoo on the U.S. Women’s National Team. Former UVA great Becky Sauerbrunn has earned 216 caps with the USWNT, but she’s sidelined with an injury and will miss this World Cup, which starts in less than two weeks in Australia and New Zealand.

“She’s just so steady, on and off the field, and she’s that person that everyone kind of looks to and leans on,” Sonnett said. “We obviously feel for her. It’s huge, huge shoes to be filled, but things that she’s left and imprinted on the group are definitely still here, which is so nice.”

Sonnett said she’s studied how Sauerbrunn, 38, has “been able to adjust to how the game is trending, because the game is not the same from when she first started playing at UVA, and all these years how soccer has evolved. How we play out of the back, how we defend, things are changing. So I always look at players who are 35-plus. They’re adjusting to the tactics, but how do they keep their bodies going? What are they actually doing? What’s the regimen? In terms of role models, she’s learned, she’s stayed coachable, and she’s been adjusting her whole entire career to stay relevant and to stay the best of the best.”

Sonnett, who grew up in Marietta, Ga., came to UVA in the summer of 2012 after graduating from Fellowship Christian as that school’s all-time leading scorer. She’d always played in the midfield, but “for us, in that particular team, it really made sense to move Emily to the back,” Virginia head coach Steve Swanson said.

As a freshman, Sonnett started 16 games for a team that blanked Maryland 4-0 in the championship game of the ACC tournament.

“She had never played center back before in her life,” Swanson said. “That’s a lot, asking a player to change like she did. And so I think there was a little bit of understanding the position and tailoring to what we felt her strengths were. For instance, I told Emily, ‘Look, I want you to go forward whenever you can,’ because she had a midfielder’s presence on the field. That’s what she’d played all her life. So she kind of changed the center back position in a lot of ways in college, because I was releasing her all the time and encouraging her to get forward a lot.”

Sonnett proved to be a capable defender, too. “She was very good at going to the ball defensively,” Swanson said. “She was a very good presser of the ball, and I think playing as the center back, she could release a lot and put pressure on the ball as soon as possible. We were fortunate, because I think she accepted and embraced the position. It wasn’t like she knew where to be in a back four and how to run a back four, any of that, but she quickly made it her own and made a difference for us.”

As the Hoos racked up wins during her college career, Sonnett racked up accolades. As a senior in 2015, she was named ESPNW National Player of the Year and a first-team All-American. With Sonnett anchoring their back line, the Cavaliers advanced twice to the College Cup, captured two ACC regular-season titles and won the ACC tournament once. They were NCAA runners-up in 2014.

Sonnett at UVA

Growing up in Georgia, Sonnett said, she didn’t see herself as a future USWNT team member. But when “I realized I was good enough to play in college and I could get my education paid for, I was like, ‘That’s the goal. How can I get to a really good university academically and then player soccer on top of that?’ ”

One of her USWNT teammates, Lindsey Horan, opted not to play college soccer and instead turned pro straight out of high school.

“I was someone who’d probably never be able to do that,” Sonnett said. “I needed the development. So choosing a university and choosing a program with a coach like Steve Swanson, who was part of U.S. youth programs, and getting that development piece [was crucial].”

Swanson said Sonnett “deserves a ton of credit. She’s had to adapt and adjust quite a bit. Emily has got a lot of skills that make her versatile to a number of positions. It’s not easy to say, ‘OK, do I focus on center back? Do I focus on outside back? Do they want me to play the midfield?’ And so she’s done an amazing job of sort of rolling with it and just reinventing herself in different years, and to do that at the global level in the global game is pretty impressive.”

Sonnett, who earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology, marvels at how well her former teammates have done since leaving Grounds.

“They all are so well-rounded and they all have very cool jobs or they’re living everywhere,” Sonnett said. “I feel like I was surrounded not only by really good athletes and soccer players, but people who really knew what they wanted to do, and now they’re out in the world and they’re doing it. And it’s really cool to catch up with people and to be like, ‘We went to UVA.’ It was a great environment to grow as a full person, not only as the athlete. Now, looking back at my time at the University of Virginia, I’m like, ‘Yeah, I think I chose right.’

“We make our choice when we’re like 15, 16 years old: ‘Let’s go to the University of Virginia.’ You have no idea how impactful that is, but it ended up working out, and I loved the whole entire experience.”

U.S. Soccer/ISI Photos

By the time she was an upperclassman, Sonnett knew a professional career would be an option for her. She’d played on the U.S. under-23 national team coached by Swanson and, in October 2015, received her first call-up to the USWNT. In 2016, she was the first player chosen in the National Women’s Soccer League draft.

During her NWSL career, Sonnett has played for Portland, Washington and, now, OL Reign. Her teammates on the Seattle-based club include three other former UVA standouts: Laurel Ivory, Phoebe McClernon and Veronica Latsko. In all, there are 18 Hoos on NWSL rosters, “so we’re certainly proud of that,” said Swanson, a former USWNT assistant coach.

“What I feel good about is now the country can see and the world can see the qualities of those players: not just as players but as people as well. I think they’re all great people and I think they’ve represented the program extremely well. They’re great ambassadors to the University and to our soccer program, and it’s just neat to see them doing their thing on a world stage and doing it as well as they are. I’m just happy that the country can see what we’ve seen over our short time when they were here.”

In its final match before the start of the World Cup, the USWNT defeated Wales 2-0 on Sunday in San Jose, Calif. Sonnett played professionally in Australia during the 2017-18 season and has been to New Zealand as well, so she has some familiarity with the host nations of this World Cup.

When she reflects on the 2019 tournament, Sonnett said, what stands out is the “the almost three-and-a-half-year process leading up to the World Cup [and] that feeling of actually executing the process … and then obviously winning at the end. But there’s just so much detail that goes into it, you’re just like, ‘Oh, wow. We actually did it all and it actually worked.’ ”

Now comes an opportunity for the U.S. to do it again. “It’s a new group, it’s a new journey,” Sonnett said, “so I’m excited. It’s not, ‘How can we replicate it?’ It’s, ‘How can make the journey our own?’ ”

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