Sophia Braun interview: #13 Dream – Argentina defender, all the way to NZ

Photo: Stefi León / AFA

Argentina’s Sophia Braun will now realise a World Cup ambition she once only scarcely allowed herself to have. On her way to the main stage, the 23-year-old who is a touch more two-step than tango has been giving herself to a new groove entirely.

Release of emotion is a given for any team qualifying for a major tournament. Less common, however, is one of the ways in which Argentina marked the moment after confirming their place at the upcoming FIFA Women’s World Cup.

A 3-1 win against Paraguay in the 2022 Copa América third-place decider sealed it, a game they were trailing in from the 39th minute until a Yamila Rodríguez equaliser with 12 to go. Flor Bonsegundo’s stoppage-time free-kick and a breakaway second from Rodríguez completed a euphoric turnaround.

Some tears greeted the final whistle, but once a modicum of composure came back into play, thoughts would turn to a certain deal that had been lined up beforehand.

“We had been together a long time, prepping for the tournament, so we celebrated a lot in the locker room, and we actually cut our coach (Germán Portanova)’s hair!” recalls number 13 Sophia Braun, part of the Albiceleste backline that night. “He had really long hair, and I think that he had agreed if we qualified for the World Cup, we could cut it, so I watched as different girls on the team came forward and cut pieces of his hair off!”

From locker-room barber shops, to conversing in a second language, learning to roll with the unfamiliar has been a theme in her burgeoning international career. Growing up in Beaverton, Oregon, she represents her Buenos Aires-born mother Karina’s homeland.

Having acquired her own Argentine citizenship in high school, the decision to send out an on-field highlight reel would ultimately open the national-team door.

“I honestly didn’t really know what I was doing with it all! I had my dual citizenship, and I love soccer and kind of wanted to explore the opportunity of being able to play in Argentina, so I had a highlight video that I was sending out to colleges.

“I had sent it down to any of the contacts I could find, and had started to get to know the coaches a little bit, and from there, they invited me to a camp before the U20 Copa América, before the World Cup qualifiers, so the timing worked out really well. The first time was really hard, because I had been to Argentina one or two times before, but it was always with my whole family, and I was always with my mom, who could translate everything!”

Shortly before a pandemic came into full view, she managed to leave a firm impression at the 2020 Sudamericano Sub-20 on home soil, including scoring the winner against Ecuador in San Juan from an indirect free-kick. With U20 coach Carlos Borrello also in charge of the senior team at the time, her elevation to full international would come during the following year’s SheBelieves Cup.

With Sophia her birth name, she tells how she has grown up mostly known as Sophie, something that continues around the Argentina players. It is an environment where she has been made to feel at home, and having your very own anthem certainly doesn’t hurt.

“With the national team, they have kind of given me a theme song, and it’s ‘Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)’ by Beyoncé. I think they played that song one time, and I did Beyoncé’s little dance and they loved it, so now they like to play it for me and have me dance all the time!

“It’s fun; I’m thankful that they’re trying to include me the best they can.”

The night of their World Cup qualification was also soundtrack-worthy, as celebrations in Colombia continued at the team dinner, with players enjoying songs together. If football permeates day-to-day life in Argentina, so does music, which Sophie has been keenly absorbing.

“I think music is a huge deal, for a lot of athletes, but definitely for every team I’ve been a part of; it kind of sets the mood and gets our minds right. Obviously, Argentina, music is a big deal, and there’s a lot of songs even just for the national team that carry a lot of sentiment and value.

“There’s definitely songs where I’m like, ‘Okay, I know these words, I can sing along a little bit!’ I start to pick it up more and more.

“I like the music a lot, and I think being able to listen to the songs has honestly helped my Spanish as well. Bad Bunny, I would say they listen to a lot!”

That exposure to Spanish went up a few more notches earlier this year, with the decision to join Mexican team Club León. Just like with the national team, she is very much on another frequency at times!

“This is probably controversial…but I really like country music! They don’t listen to a lot of country down here, or in Argentina, but I love country music; Luke Combs, Morgan Wallen.

“But I’m expanding my horizons and branching out!”

There is an Argentina teammate who can take some recent credit for helping her do just that. The 19-year-old from Mendoza recently transferred to the University of South Alabama, and like Sophie, will be part of the World Cup this month.

“Chiara Singarella has been the DJ these past few weeks; she even mixes in some English music for me, which I love! I’m working on listening to as much Latin music as I can.

“My new favourite is ‘Échame la Culpa’ by Luis Fonsi and Demi Lovato – some English and Spanish, the best of both worlds!”

Whole-hearted midfielder Romina Núñez is another sometime DJ, in an environment where the family feel among players is always apparent. With great camaraderie in a team comes compassion, and the sadness felt for anyone forced to miss a big tournament after being part of the road to get there is far-reaching.

Among others, that is the case for Laurina Oliveros, with the goalkeeper now an injury-enforced absentee. Spending a portion of her childhood in Florida, the time and assistance ‘Lauchi’ has afforded Sophie as an English speaker in the squad is something she will remain grateful for.

“My first time with the full national team was the SheBelieves Cup in 2021, I met her there. At the time, Natalie Juncos was also there (travelling to Orlando before missing the tournament due to COVID), she’s from the US as well, so she helped me a lot, too.

“I met Laurina, and her English is perfect, so I basically stuck to her like glue from then on! Obviously, not being able to speak is frustrating a lot of times, but she made me feel really comfortable and helped me through everything; I’m really appreciative of that.

“There’s a few girls who can definitely talk a little bit; they all really try, which I’m super grateful for. Paulina (Gramaglia), she’s been with Houston this past year, (Mariana) Larroquette played at Kansas City, so she can speak a little bit too, and I’ve been playing here with her in Léon (before recently joining Orlando Pride), so she’s helped a lot.”

A team captain at Gonzaga University, Sophie is another of the former collegiate players at this World Cup who were once registered for an NWSL Draft, only to make their way via an alternative route. Having been on the list in January this year, she would be announced in the following weeks as kicking off her professional career in Liga MX Femenil.

Continuing her adaptation from midfielder to defender, life in León has also consisted of more Spanish lessons; Duolingo included and ably backed up by English-subtitled movies on Netflix. Living with a fellow American, in teammate and half-Mexican player Briana Woodall, has been both a blessing and a curse, she laughs, with the two naturally speaking English together.

“I probably took six years of Spanish class in school, which is crazy, because it would not show; you would guess that I maybe took one semester! We’ve been doing some online classes.

“Being around the team a lot is honestly the most helpful, just being surrounded by the language and kind of forcing myself to talk and to listen, even if I sound maybe like a five-year-old! This is my first professional experience, coming out of college, so I had no idea what to expect.

“I’m really thankful for it. I think being able to get out of the US and experience another culture, to be part of a league that’s growing and investing a lot in women’s soccer, is something that I’m super thankful for.”

One of the team’s Mexican attacking talents, a guitar-playing one at that, has been on hand to stoke the pre-game fire for those in green and white.

“Yashira (Barrientos), she brings the speaker and everything, she’s the full DJ! She sings sometimes, too.”

Sophie’s step-up to senior international came while still a junior at Gonzaga University. As she made her debut against Brazil at the SheBelieves Cup, her Zags teammates were watching together back on campus, in Argentina jerseys.

For keepsakes of her college years, look no further than an early-2000s, worldwide novelty hit!

“We were the Gonzaga Bulldogs, so one song that we loved was ‘Who Let the Dogs Out?’ (Baha Men); we would walk out to that. It was funny, but I will forever think of my soccer team when I hear that song!”

Asked which teammate(s) she would choose to collaborate with if she ever had to record a song cover, she confirms there would be Bulldogs running wild in the studio.

“My college teammates, I got really close with them, so my two roommates, Haley Archuleta and Hannah Hale, I would definitely sing with them. I think we could do pretty well on a few songs!”

Given her choice of any artists from all-time to see perform, she believes Adele would probably take the honour. She shares some of the live-music experiences she has had up to now.

“I went to a lot of country concerts, especially in college, because we were in more of a rural area; I went to Rascal Flatts, Old Dominion. My first concert I think was Hannah Montana!

“I think I was definitely more of a pop girl when I was young. My first experience with music probably was just the radio, which I loved in the car.

“Even in high school, all my friends would say, ‘We can choose our own music,’ and I’d be like, ‘Actually, I like the radio!’”

Whether it tops a Miley Cyrus show or not, it is difficult to avoid being mesmerised by the sight and sound of a stadium crowd in Argentina in full voice, moving as one. At what will be the country’s fourth appearance at a World Cup in the women’s game, Sophie and her teammates head into the tournament filled with heart, aiming to produce performances capable of stirring fervour in those watching back home.

The location of this competition means an especially-challenging trip for fans of many nations, but a corner of sky blue and white can be expected at this Aussie/New Zealand party. After recent weeks in camp, Sophie’s place in the final 23 was confirmed this past weekend, as squad number 13.

“Honestly, when I started playing soccer, I don’t think in my wildest dreams I would have anticipated that I would be training and possibly heading to a World Cup; it’s incredible. I’m super thankful for the opportunity and I’m really, really excited.”

At last summer’s Copa América, an unexpected chance came her way to start the semi-final with hosts Colombia, after starting centre-back Aldana Cometti tested positive for COVID only hours before the game. In their decisive win against Paraguay, meanwhile, it was Sophie who narrowly managed to dodge the path of Flor Bonsegundo’s goal-bound free-kick – a ‘game of inches’ indeed.

Based in New Zealand, their World Cup begins in Auckland against Italy (24th July), with South Africa and Sweden to follow, in what appears one of the more open groups in the tournament. Sophie’s debut in the competition sees her on the same footing as many of the world’s biggest names, like Brazilian icon Marta, at her sixth (and final) World Cup.

She recalls her post-game interaction with the Orlando Pride star in the SheBelieves Cup.

“I was really nervous. I’m not too good at putting myself out there and asking for pictures and stuff like that, but it was a really special moment for me; I’ve looked up to Marta forever.

“Watching her growing up and being able to step on a field and play against her was a dream come true. Some of my other teammates were taking pictures, so I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll just slide myself in and ask for one as well!’

“She was awesome, she was super nice. She took pictures with all of us, so it was special.”

Prior to 2019, Argentina had never registered a World Cup point in their two previous tournaments, but they got two in France, most memorably shattering Scotland hopes at the death with a 3-3 comeback draw. This time, they are set on being more than just protagonists in others’ fortunes.

They will be led by goalkeeping captain Vanina Correa, whose penalty-saving, Player of the Match performance in the 1-0 loss to England four years ago drew widespread admiration. The world can also look forward to attacking performances from the likes of technically-blessed Atlético Madrid forward Estefanía Banini.

Along with football tennis, the players are often found between game days gathered around a small, trampoline-style net for some high-octane bouts of Spikeball. Then there is the unavoidable, now-internationally-renowned tradition of drinking mate (‘mah-teh’), something Sophie has unsurprisingly been asked about before.

Previously sharing how she was yet to get fully on board, there have been signs of progress since!

“I’ve been trying it more and more. I actually do like it, I just have no idea how to prepare it.

“A lot of the girls are really into it, and I think they get really excited when I’m willing to drink with them!”

Scoring her first senior international goal against Venezuela in April, 2023 has already been a remarkable year in her young life. Prior to college, one of the teams that the former Jesuit High School player (a High School All-American selection) appeared for was NWSL side Portland Thorns’ development academy.

Graduating from GU with a degree in computer science and computational thinking (with a minor in general business), she embarks upon the World Cup now as a professional player, with the intention to carry on seeing where the ride leads her.

“I think I’m definitely pretty invested in soccer, and I’m excited to see where it takes me, so I’m definitely giving this my all right now. Being able to live my dream and play the game I love is something that’s really fun and special, and I’m grateful for.

“I don’t know where it’ll take me, but I definitely want to keep playing soccer, at least while I still love it.”

The travel aspect is one strand of the sport she especially enjoys. Her last call here lands her in a place she probably also dreamed of making it to one day (even if she had no concept of it at all…).

The Beats & Rhymes FC fantasy 5-a-side arena welcomes its latest visitor! Like past interviewees on here over the years, Sophie is asked to picture a small-sided game, with four current or former teammates required to join her line-up.

Rather than a definitive ‘best’ selection, the emphasis is simply on throwing together a sample group of players, based on their entertainment factor. Sophie’s starters also come complete with a twist of tenacity – make way for a group of Braun winners…

“I’ll stick with the national team and go in that direction. I think I would really enjoy playing with Paulina (Gramaglia), because her English is good and she would help me there!

“She’s also a really good player. I think Estefi Banini is really good in small spaces, so she’d be fun to play with.

“Same with Lore (Lorena) Benítez, she’s super technical. We’ll probably add Romi Núñez in there, because she’s like a pitbull that will run forever, so she can do the dirty work!”

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