By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — The National Women’s Soccer League kicked off a new season in February, and former University of Virginia standouts are, as usual, well-represented on NWSL rosters.

In the 11-year history of the NWSL draft, 22 players from UVA have been selected, the most recent being Talia Staude, whom the NC Courage picked in January. Several other former Cavaliers are playing professionally overseas.

UVA is one of only two schools to have had at least one player selected in each NWSL draft.

“We are proud of all our alumni playing at the professional level, especially since development is such a key component of our coaching philosophy,” Virginia head coach Steve Swanson said.

During the recruiting process, Swanson said, he and his staff are “very specific about our goals. Among those, we want to graduate our players, win ACC and NCAA championships, and develop our players for the next level. Development is critical to the culture of our program. Most, if not all, of our players have aspirations to play at the next level.”

UVA has 18 alumnae on NWSL rosters, tied for third-most among college programs. Wahoos in the league include Becky Sauerbrunn and Emily Sonnett, who also are members of the U.S. Women’s National Team. They did not overlap in Charlottesville—Sauerbrunn’s final season as a Cavalier was 2007, and Sonnett’s was 2015—but each believes her experience at Virginia has helped her thrive as a pro.

In the NWSL and in international matches, Sauerbrunn said, players are drawn from various countries, and “so you’re basically getting an influx of all these different styles and ideas, and it can take a second for you to get used to the pace of the game—not just the physical pace, but the pace and speed that people make decisions with. And so for me, I know the jump was both the physical, because you’re playing against women that potentially are stronger and faster than you, but also women that really understand the game.

“As a central defender, for me the jump was, ‘OK, I’m playing against this person that sees this, that plays this way. How do I position myself in a way that can negate everything that makes her special?’ And I think Steve really helped me with that.”

However gifted his players might be, Swanson knows talent alone will not ensure their success at the highest level of the sport.

“He wants there to be some sort of understanding and reasoning behind why you position yourself that way or why you would play that ball with that kind of spin,” Sauerbrunn said. “So even when he was an assistant for the senior women’s national team and you would do film with him, it was so reminiscent for me of my time with him at UVA, because it was still very detail-oriented and he was still very interested in what I was seeing as I was playing.”

Becky Sauerbrunn

Sauerbrunn plays for the Portland Thorns in the NWSL. Sonnett is with NJ/NY Gotham FC.

For a player, the college years are “a really critical development period,” Sonnett said, “not only for technique but tactical awareness. And there’s probably only a few teams at the college level that can really do that … I think a lot of people who end up going to Virginia leave with a lot of tactical awareness and teaching towards their technique.

“I think one of the big things in America, especially with college soccer, is that you’re not playing [games] year-round. You have your season and then your spring season, which is like five games, but having those individual development plans and being that specific actually puts you in a good spot for year-round development, not just in-season.”

Swanson is heading into his 25th season at UVA. His coaching résumé also includes extensive experience with U.S. Soccer. He’s been a USWNT assistant and head coach of the U-16, U-18, U-20 and U-23 women’s national teams.

Growing up, Sauerbrunn said, she had Swanson as “a youth national team coach for a few years, and I could tell, even at that age, that he was very interested in knowing the game and understanding the game and being technically sound, but also tactically sound. And I really, really learned a lot from him during that time, so when he reached out about potentially going to UVA, for me it was kind of a no-brainer that I kind of wanted to continue that journey with him as my coach, just because I really felt that I could learn so much from him.”

Laurel Ivory, who lettered five times for the Hoos (2017-21), is a goalkeeper for the NWSL’s Seattle Reign FC. Her teammates in Seattle include fellow UVA alums Veronica Latsko and Phoebe McClernon.

Ivory believes Swanson’s approach at UVA is largely a product of his time with the USWNT, which won two World Cups with him on its coaching staff.

“He has been at the highest point you can be in women’s soccer,” Ivory said, “and he finds a balance of what’s needed in college soccer versus what’s needed in the pros, and he brings it into the program. I think it’s changed my game tremendously.”

Emily Sonnett

The entire coaching staff “is very development-oriented and development-motivated,” Ivory said. “And then on top of that, Steve’s just experienced so much and he knows how to be successful, and when you have both of those two things tied together, I think you’re in really good hands to grow in whenever you need to grow in.”

Haley Hopkins, who plays with Staude on the NC Courage, transferred to UVA after four years at Vanderbilt, where she’d redshirted as a freshman because of an injury.

“I wanted development,” Hopkins said. “And I think that was a huge reason why I went to UVA, because Steve believed—and I knew I believed—that I still had room to grow within soccer. I feel like when I was at UVA, I transformed from an athlete to an actual soccer player, and that was largely in part to Steve and the coaches and the plans that they’d prepared for me. During the spring we had development plans. They were very, very specific and individualized to the player, not even just the position, but to the player herself. There was deep, thoughtful, thorough analysis following the fall season, and that’s what we really worked on in the spring.”

Haley Hopkins

By the time she joined the Courage in 2023, Hopkins said, she “felt significantly prepared for the next step.”

In addition to Swanson, the Cavaliers’ staff includes associate head coach Ron Raab, assistant coaches Sam Raper and Lizzy Sieracki, and director of analytics and operations Eilidh Thompson.

Some of the players who now make their livings as professionals arrived at UVA as highly regarded recruits. Others were less poished and had to wait their turn as Cavaliers. That group includes goalkeeper Michhaela Moran, who now plays professionally in Norway.

Moran didn’t play much during her first two seasons at UVA, but she “just kept getting better,” Swanson said, “and the development that she made when she was here was nothing short of amazing, particularly when you think about how many actual games she played. As a staff that is something we are proud of, and that’s what we try to articulate in the recruiting process.

“The college athletics landscape has changed so much over the past few years, and there is no doubt it will continue to change in the future. And that’s why as a coaching staff we want to continue to emphasize the value of not only a degree from the University of Virginia, but also the development of all of our student-athletes, on and off the field.”

To receive Jeff White’s articles by email, click the appropriate box in this link to subscribe.

Laurel Ivory