Why Julie Ertz’s return to action ‘was like a clean slate’

Five months ago it looked as if the closest Julie Ertz would come to a World Cup game this summer would be the distance between the sofa and TV in the living room of her Phoenix home.

She hadn’t played a game since the final match of the Tokyo Olympics in the summer of 2021, taking time off to start a family and heal some nagging injuries. If she was retiring, she hadn’t said so. But if she was coming back, she hadn’t said that either.

Even U.S. coach Vlatko Andonovski wasn’t sure of Ertz’s status.

“Time is running out for her,” he said in February. “She’s someone that we’re probably not going to be able to count on in the World Cup.”

Fast forward to last week. Not only was Ertz on the field for a full 90 minutes in the Americans’ tournament-opening win over Vietnam, but she started at center back, a position she hadn’t played for the national team since the World Cup opener four years ago.

What looked to be a gamble for Andonovski proved to be the safe bet. With Becky Sauerbrunn unavailable for the World Cup because of a foot injury, Ertz not only made the team, she took Sauerbrunn’s position, anchoring a defense that didn’t allow a shot and helping set up the final goal in the 3-0 victory.

She and the U.S. will face a bigger test Wednesday, Pacific time, when they meet the Netherlands in the second match of group play in Wellington, New Zealand. The game, which will likely decide which team wins the group, is a rematch of the 2019 World Cup final, won by the U.S. The teams also met in the quarterfinals of the Tokyo Olympics, with that game ending in a draw before the U.S. advanced on penalty kicks.

United States midfielder Lindsey Horan, left, and Sophia Smith, center, celebrate.

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Ertz played both those games as a midfielder, where she’s spent the vast majority of her career. But her place in the World Cup was contingent on a willingness to return to the back line.

“Throughout my entire time with the national team, you always have to be versatile so you’re always kind of thrown in different things,” Ertz said. “Obviously, we’ve been working on possibilities of being in the back for a while, at least since I’ve been back.”

The fact that Ertz is on the team, much less playing a key role, seemed unlikely last winter. She was 30 when she gave birth to son Madden in August and she hadn’t really planned beyond that.

“I wanted to just make sure that I was in the safest place for my body to return,” said Ertz, who hadn’t taken that much time off from soccer since childhood. “It was like a clean slate in the sense of having to start over. Pregnancy is the same thing as coming back from an injury. Your body has changed over 10 months plus. So it was just a process of understanding that.”

Before she could return, she had to find a place to train. And because she lived in Phoenix, where her husband, Zach, played with the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals, she quietly reached out to Phoenix Rising, which plays in the second-tier USL Championship, and asked if she could practice with its U-19 boys’ academy team.

Vietnam's goalkeeper Thi Kim Thanh Tran and United States' Julie Ertz go for the ball.

Julie Ertz and Vietnam’s goalkeeper Thi Kim Thanh Tran go for the ball during the Women’s World Cup Group E match in Auckland, New Zealand, on Saturday.

(Andrew Cornaga / Associated Press)

Ertz was fit when she showed up, closing practices with extra sprints and conditioning work. But she needed time on the ball, she needed to simulate game situations. Soon she was playing in scrimmages, auditioning for the national team coaches that Andonovski sent to Phoenix to watch her play.

They liked what they saw, so Andonovski invited Ertz back to the national team for a pair of April friendlies in which she played a combined 69 minutes as a midfielder. She also played eight times for Angel City, her first NWSL games in 23 months, further honing her game and proving she belonged at the World Cup.

“You’re never guaranteed anything. And I knew that I needed games and to perform,” she said. “I just felt I was in a good place if Vlatko felt like I could help the team.”

He did.

Without Sauerbrunn, the most seasoned active U.S. player, Andonovski’s options at center back were a pair of World Cup rookies in Naomi Girma and Alana Cook — and Ertz, a natural midfielder who played the entire 2015 World Cup as a center back, helping the U.S. go undefeated. Her experience alone could make a difference.

“When we knew that Becky was not going to be able to make it, that’s something that we started looking into,” Andonovski said. “We had a conversation with Julie. Before we even tried it, we did a lot of work in terms of analysis. Also, she wanted to get adjusted.

“I’m glad we made that decision.”

Ertz has been a workhorse in her three World Cups, missing just one start while helping the U.S. to two titles. She’s never lost a game in the tournament. It’s uncertain she can handle the load of starting seven times in less than a month this time given that she’s made just eight starts for club and country since the Tokyo Olympics and missed two Angel City games in May with a thigh injury.

But Ertz said she wouldn’t have made the trip if she wasn’t prepared.

“You can’t go in and not be 110%,” she said. “I do feel really good. And I think as time has gone on, and coaches have been able to watch you and your work ethic, that they know kind of my expectation for myself. They knew that my goal is to not just be here, but be available the whole tournament.

“Nobody wants to go into a major tournament and not be available the whole time.”

It sure beats watching it on TV.