“She’s back like she never left”
AUSTIN, Texas – Julie Ertz’s special day began, as special days often do with the USA women’s national team. There are ceremonies that the public sees, framed jerseys to commemorate achievements, but also “things that happen internally that the outside world doesn’t see that are also very touching and beautiful,” says captain Becky Sauerbrunn. Backstage here in Austin on Saturday morning, there was a mix of memories that filled Ertz with emotion. There were video clips documenting her rise from the US U20 team all the way to her 100th USWNT cap which was the subject of today’s celebration.
It was also a milestone that Ertz reached on March 5, 2020.
Celebrating it three years later was “weird” and “bizarre,” Ertz admitted on Friday, and — “I think, um” — she turned her head, searching for words while trying to escape emotion at the same time. But she couldn’t. She wiped away an emerging tear. Words never came.
In that three-year gap, COVID-19 has paralyzed football. An injury made Ertz pause after the postponed Olympic Games in Tokyo. The pregnancy then prolonged her absence. Her postpartum journey back to sports was non-linear and hard.
When her 20-month absence finally ended; and when she slipped into a paint-splattered USWNT jersey on Saturday; and when she emerged from a Q2 Stadium tunnel to find her family, including her husband Zach and baby Madden, it became a celebration of much more than a round number. She waved to a sold-out crowd as she enjoyed her pre-game moment before the USA were set to take on Ireland in a friendly. She hugged Kate Markgraf and Cindy Parlow Cone, who treble as US soccer officials, fellow moms and former USWNTers. She greeted her family, kissed Zach, hugged Madden and posed beaming for a photo on the field.
She then ducked behind a yellow rope, behind photographers and the US coaching staff, to the very end of a line of USWNT reservists.
She grabbed a water bottle, like all subs do in those moments before kickoff, and fed the woman who started in front of her, Andi Sullivan.
She walked from the edge of the audition group to a second-row seat on the bench, changed into a warm-up jacket and the substitute’s jersey, and settled in for an unfamiliar view.
Ertz, 31, was the talk of the town, the subject of media attention, the player all eyes were on at this week’s training camp, the last of the national team before they gather ahead of the World Cup in June. But Saturday was also a reminder that, despite her stature, she hasn’t played a competitive soccer game since August 2021 and doesn’t have a professional club.
Teammates and coaches gushed this week about how great it was to have them back. “Julie Ertz looks good,” said head coach Vlatko Andonovski on Friday with a teasing smile.
“It’s exciting to have her voice back on the field,” said Lindsey Horan. In their first training session together, Horan added, “It looked like the Julie I knew.”
But they also knew she needed to find her rhythm, regain her match fitness and reclaim a spot in the starting XI.
And even if she were in top form, even if she were the best defensive midfielder in the squad, and who Andonovski would turn to tomorrow for a World Cup eliminator, there was no way he could let her automatically unseat Sullivan, a confidante presence in Ertz’ Absence, and one that has truly earned its place.
When Andonovski rolled out an 11 first choice on Saturday, it was Sullivan who stormed onto the field with the starters and Ertz who clapped from behind the yellow rope while awaiting her pregame ceremony.
But of course she wasn’t just any substitute. When it came on in the 67th minute to give the USA a 1-0 lead, Sauerbrunn took off the captain’s armband and slipped it on Ertz’s left arm. When Sullivan gave her words of encouragement and a little nudge as she sprinted onto the field, fans roared.
Then Ertz missed three unnecessarily ambitious passes.
She rampaged forward, recklessly out of position.
She hit a few headers and threw at a few others, and then just five minutes after taking the field, she picked up the game’s only yellow card for the USWNT.
All of this got midfield partner Rose Lavelle to think: “Oh yeah, she’s back like she never left.”
“I think my eyes were as big as my whole face,” Ertz said of the moment her first chance for a signature tackle flashed in front of her as Ireland’s Katie McCabe charged through midfield and Ertz cut her down.
“I think my excitement got the better of me,” Ertz continued with a grin. “I’ll make sure to contain that again and make my technique a little cleaner.”
No harm done as USA won 2-0.
She was rusty, but “still kind of shone through everything,” she said. “It was fun getting competitive juices flowing.” The mistakes, the romp, the hasty passes are all “understandable at this point,” Andonovski said. He was happy “because she was happy,” and so were her teammates.
“She’s kind of an enforcer in there,” Lavelle said. “She’s an ankle cracker. She will get stuck. Your energy is just incredible. Especially when it comes to set pieces, her attention to detail is incredible. And yes, it’s great to have her back.”
“And yes,” admitted Andonovski, “we tried to direct them a little bit. She strayed a bit from the script.” But he didn’t mind.
What mattered was the joy.
The reflections on 100 caps and the family moments will be remembered.
After months of work, a week full of premieres and a Saturday full of emotions, Ertz said after the game: “I don’t think I have tears left to even cry.”