Julie Ertz in conversation: the USWNT star’s life in football

Julie Ertz in conversation: the USWNT star’s life in football

MESA, ARIZONA doesn’t have a notable sporting past. The third largest city in the Copper State, Mesa is located just 20km from the state’s capital, Phoenix, which, in contrast, does have a sporting pedigree. Just one of 13 cities in the USA to boast a team in all four major national sports – NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL – it’s no surprise that its suburbs are responsible for being the stomping ground of several major sporting stars.

Besides Olympic gold medal swimmer Misty Hyman, chief among the past residents of Mesa is Julie Ertz, midfield star for the US Women’s National Team, one of the most successful sides in the game’s history.

At just 25, Ertz has become a mainstay of Jill Ellis’ national side, who are the current world champions, and has already amassed well over half a century of caps as she approaches the peak years of her career as an athlete. “Here in the USA, when you’re really young you get involved in different sports,” says Ertz, formerly known as Julie Johnston. “My sister Melanie chose soccer as the predominant sport she wanted to go into, and not far after I kind of just chose the same thing.”

While Melanie has a couple of years on younger sister Ertz, the pair grew up playing football in Mesa. Both sisters played for the same local clubs growing up before the younger sibling journeyed to Santa Clara in 2010 to begin a four-year spell which would propel her into the career she enjoys now.

As a freshman, she played 20 games in her first year and won award after award before graduating in 2013 and making a step up, into the NWSL, the USA’s professional women’s league. During this time, Ertz was making waves on the international stage, becoming a regular member of the under-20 side, amassing 13 caps and scoring four goals in the run-up to the 2014 Under-20 Women’s World Cup.

A year after the senior side had fallen to Japan in the main event, Ertz captained her team to victory in the backyard of the senior team’s conquerors, defeating Germany 1-0 in the final, and began to feel like a career in the sport was a distinct possibility. “It was just a dream for a while, but I think it was with the under-20 team and [when] we were going through the World Cup process that it started to change,” she recalls.

“I think being at that World Cup, having so much fun and taking in that experience was a huge moment for me where I realised I loved it and I wanted to do this for the rest of my life. I relished the competition and I was just so grateful that our federation gave me this experience and the chance to grow as a player. I fell in love with soccer on a different level during that tournament.”

‘Loved’ and ‘fun’ are two words Ertz commonly uses during our chat and it’s clear the midfielder has always experienced joy when playing the beautiful game, from her backyard as a child to the pinnacle of the professional game.

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Ertz’s career was already progressing at a rapid rate by January 2013, when she made her senior national team debut whilst only just starting her final year at Santa Clara. She made a handful of appearances under Ellis before she faced the prospect of the NWSL Draft, a moment which would define the next few years of her career. Such was her obvious talent at the time, Ertz was the third player to be selected after Crystal Dunn and Kealia Ohai, a pick which meant she would launch her professional career with the Chicago Red Stars.

Scoring on her debut set the bar for the rest of the season as Ertz was named NWSL Rookie of the Year despite the Red Stars just missing out on an end of season playoff spot. The next season – 2015 – would prove to be a busy year due to the women’s World Cup in Canada, the first chance for Ertz to perform on the world stage – but the journey wasn’t easy.

Ertz was only called into the squad for the qualifiers at the end of 2014 due to an injury picked up by Dunn, but didnt see any action in any of the games, and she couldn’t be certain of her spot in the squad for the tournament across the border in Canada.

After undertaking private training sessions with teammate Carli Lloyd, Ertz was in the car on her way to Chicago with sister Melanie when she found out she’d been picked for the squad and would be going to her first major tournament with the senior team. “You become a little more confident as you continue to grow,” says Ertz. “Having world-class players around me like Lauren [Holiday], one of the best midfielders I’ve ever played with because of how she reads the game, and Abby [Wambach] helped. I learned so much from those players.”

Despite making the cut, Ertz was competing against legendary centre-back Christie Rampone for a starting berth alongside Becky Sauerbrunn. But such was her form leading into the tournament that Ertz started all three group games as the USA progressed to the knockout stages. Further starts against Colombia and China led the USA to a grudge match in the semi-final against rivals Germany. The two nations had won two World Cups each and both were on the verge of a third title when the pair met in front of a 50,000-strong crowd in Montreal.

It was a game that could have dented Ertz’s career. With the match poised at 0-0 with 30 minutes to go, the defender was adjudged to have pulled back Alexandra Popp inside the box and Germany were awarded the chance to score from the spot. “In my head I knew I had to stay focused,” Ertz recalls. “I play with a kind of emotion and I feel like I know exactly how I’m feeling at any given moment in a game.” She adds: “I knew there was time to get back into the game and I could make up for it. I needed to stay calm, stay cool and I knew my team had my back. Those teammates don’t stop until the last whistle blows, they never give up, so I knew we had time left.”

Ertz needn’t have worried as Germany’s usually reliable Célia Šašić stepped up and sent the ball wide of Hope Solo’s goal to keep the scores at 0-0. It proved costly when Carli Lloyd converted a penalty of her own 10 minutes later, and Kelley O’Hara sealed the deal with just five minutes to go. Ertz was going to a World Cup final. “Obviously when she missed it was a huge relief for sure, I’d never say it wasn’t. But I think also at the same time, when you look back at things, of course you don’t want to remember it, but it would never do it any justice to just forget it because it’s an important moment when you talk about experience. It helped me in future games.”

Japan beating Mark Sampson’s England side in the other semi-final ensured it was a rematch of the final from four years earlier, when Japan surprised the watching world to win on penalties and secure the title for the first and only time.

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Despite knowing there was a tough task ahead, Ertz recalls a serene feeling of calmness in the immediate build-up to the counter. “The warm-up felt good, I just remember being out there and thinking ‘wow, we look really good’. Our touch was good, we looked sharp and the way everyone was talking we felt confident. When every person is on the same page and feeling confident then that’s when we’re at our best. I can’t speak for others but, from my view, I felt we looked good. I just remember feeling really excited for the game.”

Ertz had every right to be excited. In a breathtaking opening 16 minutes, the USA opened up a scarcely believable 4-0 lead in front a stunned audience. A hat-trick from Lloyd, including a goal from the halfway line, plus Lauren Holiday’s volley meant Ertz and her teammates were in dreamland. Two consolation goals, including an unfortunate own goal by Ertz, brought Japan briefly within touching distance of an incredible comeback before Tobin Heath rounded things off to ensure the USA were triple World Cup winners. Ertz was a world champion, so how would she sum up such an incredible game?

“It was wild,” she laughs. “Carli was on a completely different level and it was so fun to watch her and to have her on my team. It was an amazing, surreal moment but it was a cool cherry on top of the cake for the whole year and the journey to that World Cup.”

Ertz was one of many nominees for Player of the Tournament, and her performances ensured she was named in the All-Star Team of the Tournament. But if the final itself was surreal, what followed was just as remarkable. The success meant the USA team became the first women’s sports team to be honoured with a ticker tape parade in New York City. In October, the team were invited to the White House to meet then-President, Barack Obama.

When asked how incredible the reaction to the success was, Ertz goes back to the world ‘love’ again when describing her feelings about the tournament. “Realistically I just played soccer because I loved it so much, I felt most like myself when I was out on the field with a ball at my feet. When you talk about World Cups, of course I always thought it would be amazing, but I started playing because I loved it. I really do think women’s soccer has grown so much since I was kicking a ball around when I was eight years old.”

The next target was just around the corner in the form of Olympic gold at the 2016 Rio games. The USA had won four of the previous five Olympic tournaments, finishing runners-up in the other, so expectation was at an all-time high when the team assembled in Brazil the next summer. After topping their break, Ellis’ side were presented with the task of Sweden and their former head coach, the legendary Pia Sundhage. It was a tough game but one more than winnable by the USA’s high standards.

A staunch defensive line and a clinical young striker in Stina Blackstenius, however, saw the Swedes lead with less than 15 minutes remaining. Fortunately for Ertz and her teammates, Alex Morgan’s equaliser forced the game to a penalty shootout. It was merely the beginning of the story. Misses from Morgan and fellow striker Christen Press meant it was Sweden who shocked the holders, but comments after the game from goalkeeper Hope Solo, brandishing Sundhage’s side “cowards” for their defensive style of play, resulted in a controversy which overshadowed the result itself.

Several Sweden players were sympathetic towards Solo’s comments, whilst Sundhage indulged the moment by stating: “I don’t give a crap. I’m going to Rio, she’s going home.”

A month after that incident, Solo was given a six-month ban by US Soccer and had her national team contract terminated. Despite the fallout, Ertz is rather more candid about the defeat, describing the occasion as “motivating and inspiring”. “The Olympics was heartbreaking,” she says. “Of course this team doesn’t want to lose, ever. It wasn’t an easy game but at the same time, I think everyone’s thought-process for the next cycle was everyone would remember that loss and remember that tournament.

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“It adds fuel to the fire, it’s one of those games that leaves a bad taste in the mouth and it’s a feeling you don’t ever want to experience again. We don’t forget, but we’re definitely going to use it in a positive way so when the next tournament comes around, you don’t forget those moments.”

The tournament at least highlighted that there was a gradual improvement in women’s football around the world and that teams could take on and beat the likes of the USA and Germany. Sweden were eventually beaten by the Germans in the final, but the triumph of teams such as the Netherlands at Euro 2017 a year later provided further proof that the game is becoming more competitive at the top level. “That’s what we want – we want women’s soccer to grow and to continue to grow,” says the 25-year-old. “The competition is stepping up and we want to get better and better every single year. It’s growing on the women’s side at a very fast rate. It’s exciting and those are the games you want to play.”

For the USA, attention now turns to defending their World Cup in France next year. While players like Holiday, Rampone and Solo have seen their international careers end since the last tournament, the nation is ushering in a new generation of talent, which includes  stars such as Mal Pugh, Andi Sullivan and Rose Lavelle, leaving Ertz excited for what’s to come but also leaving the youngsters under no illusions of what is expected of them.

“I don’t think it’s one of those things our team looks at when it comes to age. You come in and this is the expectation you have at whatever age you are. You can sit back and it’s like ‘wow, this is how young you are’, but during practice the coaches don’t necessarily care about that. This is your expectation and this is where our team wants to be and wants to do.” She adds: “But it is amazing to look at them and look at how long they’re going to be in this team. It’s so exciting because you always want the US to be a powerhouse and they are amazing players that can continue our legacy. But you don’t think about that on the pitch – the expectation our team has is set.”

There hasn’t just been evolution on the field. The team spent most of 2016 and early 2017 in a protracted dispute with their federation for better pay after the success of 2015. Finally, in April 2017, the team agreed a deal with US Soccer and now, less than a year later, the federation has just named Carlos Cordeiro as its replacement for outgoing president Sunil Gulati.

With changes on and off the field, how optimistic is Ertz for the future of women’s soccer in her home country? “I’m optimistic,” she says. “It’s important to grow. The opportunities I’ve been given in this sport have been amazing. If you can set a standard and make sure others have those opportunities then that’s what you do. This sport has opened up so many doors for me and to be able to grow that and know the next generation all around the world can enjoy that is extremely important.”

Ertz speaks as well and as passionately as someone who could easily be a candidate for the same role as Cordeiro post-playing career, but right now as we speak, she is at a training camp preparing for the third annual SheBelieves Cup. A one-week tournament between the top four nations in the world, the USA will be joined by France, Germany and Phil Neville’s England for the third time as they look to build on a disappointing 2017 tournament as Ellen White’s last-minute goal in New Jersey gave Mark Sampson’s side just their fourth win against the world champions and ended an 11-year unbeaten run on home soil for the USA.

“It’s super exciting to be back and we’re ready for the tournament,” says Ertz. “It’s the beginning of 2018 and it’s World Cup qualifying year for us. We felt really good in camp last month and we feel we’re hitting some good form. We’ve been together through 2017 and tried a bunch of new things and now we have an amazing opportunity to see where we’re at against three top teams.”

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It’s a step into the unknown this year for the USA and pretty much everyone else in the tournament. Both France and England have changed coaches since last year’s tournament and the opening games will see Neville take charge of his first game as England boss. “We played England last year and they were really good, they challenged us in many ways. Maybe now they’ll have a new style of play but everyone is growing year on year, there’s always tougher competition, and it will be exciting to see where everyone else is at. England brought some really good challenges last year and with their new coaching staff they’ll be doing different things.”

With NWSL pre-season back underway last week, Ertz will join up with Red Stars teammates once the tournament is over. When she does return, she’ll be joined by Australian forward Sam Kerr, the former Sky Blue player traded to Chicago during the off-season in a move that generated plenty of excitement. Kerr was one of the standout players anywhere in the world last year for both club and country, and Ertz is excited as anyone about her new teammate. “Sam Kerr is a world-class player and one of the best forwards in the game right now. She’s young, energetic and brings a fun spark of life on the field for every club she’s played for. I’m really excited to learn from her and play with her.”

With Ertz now deployed in a holding midfield role – moving out of defence – there’s every chance Red Stars fans will get to see the pair link up plenty of times during the new season. But after spending the majority of her college career in the top half of the field, Ertz has had no qualms about moving position for club and country. “I love the challenge,” she says. “I don’t think many people probably know that in college I played as a forward so it’s not completely foreign to me. It’s a challenge, moving from a defensive role at senior level like this, but I just love playing and learning from those experiences. Whatever a coach asks you to do and where to play, that’s your role.”

Such is the ever-growing interest and success of the women’s game, nobody quite knows where it will go in the next few years, but Ertz finds herself amused by additions to the sport such as women’s teams now being readily available to play on FIFA. While it’s fun and innovative for both players and supporters alike, Ertz confesses she’s “not very good” when it comes to the game. “My husband plays it a lot, he will always play our team, it’s pretty crazy,” she laughs. “He plays all the time, like every day. I’ll take a look at the screen and there’s our team, it’s funny.”

Ertz has been married to NFL player Zach Ertz for almost a year now. The pair met in college and got engaged exactly two years ago at the same college baseball stadium where they first met. A tight end for the Philadelphia Eagles, a video of Ertz’s reaction to her husband and his team making the 2018 Super Bowl went viral last month. Whilst Zach was playing in a match to decide the fate of the Eagles’ hopes, Julie was taking part in a friendly for the USA against Denmark.

At the start of the month, Ertz was one of 67,000 attendees in Minnesota to see if her husband could topple Tom Brady and the New England Patriots and bring the Super Bowl back to Philadelphia. In a tense finale, the Eagles held on to win 41-33 and give the Ertz family a perfect start to 2018. “That game, I’m not usually nervous during regular season games. I was really excited, I was nervous but in a weird way being an athlete and winning a World Cup, it’s that feeling at the end of an amazing accomplishment. I wanted him and the team to have that feeling I did, a sense of accomplishment. I adore their team and all their hard work. To watch his career as an athlete, I wanted them to win so bad and that’s why I was so nervous. It wasn’t going to be easy, everyone knows what the Patriots can do in a final but I was just so beyond proud.”

For the 25-year-old, the end goal once again returns to the major competition she and her teammates will want to ensure remains in the USA – the World Cup. With North American qualifiers set to take place later this year, many take it as a given that the USA will qualify, but the midfielder isn’t allowing herself to get ahead of the game. “Obviously the World Cup is the final goal, absolutely. But we do know the importance of qualifying, it’s about continuing to grow this year and October is where our immediate mindset goes. Everyone has the World Cup on their minds. You go there wanting to win. To defend that trophy would be an amazing accomplishment”

Just another, Ertz hopes, in what has already been a spectacular career.

By Rich Laverty @RichJLaverty

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