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Gonzaga soccer standout Sophie Braun steps onto the world stage at SheBelieves Cup

By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

The year had recently turned to 2021, and once again, the coach of the Argentinian national team was reaching out to Sophia Braun.

This had become a common occurrence over the past year or so, since the GU captain Braun had played for that same coach, Carlos Borello, on the nation’s U20 team. Borello had invited her to join for a few international tournaments and camps, but Braun told him she couldn’t leave the country. Not during a pandemic.

But this opportunity was different. In late January, Japan’s women’s soccer team pulled out of the SheBelieves Cup in Orlando, Florida, and Argentina was going to step in.

Two weeks later, Braun – a junior midfielder for Gonzaga – was on the same field as Marta, perhaps the greatest women’s soccer player of all time, starting for the Argentinian national team as a 20-year-old.

“It was an amazing experience, being able to step on the field against Marta. I was marking her at some point,” Braun said Friday, back in Spokane after the three-game tournament. “Honestly I was really scared before the game. They are so good. What am I doing here?”

But Braun reminded herself that she’s been playing soccer her whole life – and has excelled at every level along the way – and she settled in.

“The playing style is different in Argentina. It was definitely an adjustment,” she said. “But I think I did OK.”

Braun, whose mother is from Argentina, first got connected with the national team when its coaches noticed her a few years ago. She played on Argentina’s U20 team last March when it hosted the 2020 South American U20 Women’s Championships, an event that was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic after its four-game group stage.

But Braun played well. She scored the goal in Argentina’s 1-0 victory over Ecuador, and Argentina finished third in the five-team group with a win and three draws.

A callup to the national team, though, was not something Braun expected.

She left Spokane on Feb. 15 and had two practices with her new teammates before the team’s first match three days later.

“When I got there, during the first practice I was really nervous, but as I was playing, I realized I could hang with these girls. I’ll be OK,” Braun said. “That gave me a lot of confidence going forward.”

Braun started and played 42 minutes in a 4-1 loss to Brazil. Then, she was a late substitute in the second match, a 1-0 loss to Canada. She did not play in the finale, a 6-0 defeat against the United States.

Brazil and Canada entered the tournament – an annual event that began in 2016 – tied for eighth in the most recent FIFA rankings, behind the top-ranked United States team. Argentina was the underdog in the four-team event, ranked 31st.

Braun returned to Spokane on Thursday night, and at practice the next day Chris Watkins, Gonzaga’s coach, could already see a difference in Braun.

“She was even better today than she was 10 days ago when she left,” Watkins said.

Watkins said the Gonzaga team all wore replica Argentina jerseys and watched the games together in the Volkar Center.

“Brazil’s a top team in the world. For her to have that experience and to experience those nerves is just incredible,” Watkins said. “As a coach, I’ve had a pretty good career, but I never had that.”

Braun was an all-America selection in high school, when she played at Jesuit in Portland. At Gonzaga, she started nine games as a freshman and seven as a sophomore, scoring three goals and assisting on two others over that span.

As a junior this season, Braun is a co-captain. The Bulldogs beat Pacific 2-1 on Saturday to improve to 3-1-0 overall.

“We want our captains to be hardworking players who do it by example,” Watkins said. “We don’t care too much about words, and that’s what she is: a pretty quiet kid, happy to pick up cones, super unassuming. She didn’t come in with a big ego.

“She’s the thinker. She understands movement, where the ball needs to go, and has the skill to put the ball where it needs to go. She plays like a pass-first point guard.”

Playing on the national stage, it was the speed of the game that really struck Braun. Everything is faster, and players are stronger, she said.

She admitted, too, that her Spanish isn’t great, which was an added obstacle and is something she intends to improve.

But the experience in Florida gave her confidence that she can keep up with the world’s best. And when Gonzaga lines up later this season against teams like BYU – which has won seven West Coast Conference titles since it joined in 2011 – she will remember her time with Argentina.

“I think it’s given me a lot of confidence, which is super helpful in soccer,” Braun said. “I just feel like sometimes, when we’re playing BYU, they’re really good, and (I think) this is gonna be a difficult game,” Braun said, “and now I’m like, ‘I’ve played against Marta, I think I can play against BYU.’ “

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