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Why Julie Johnston Could Be The Breakout Star At The Women’s World Cup

By Scott French | May 18, 2015, 11:33 a.m. (ET)

Julie Johnston #19 stops the ball from reaching Fiona O'Sullivan #19 of Ireland during their international friendly match on May 10, 2015 at Avaya Stadium in San Jose, Calif.

CARSON, Calif. -- Julie Johnston knew she didn’t merit a roster spot when the U.S. women’s national soccer team played its qualifiers for the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup last fall, so when one arrived — at the last minute, when another player fell injured — she promised herself she’d deserve it the next time.

Her meteoric rise in the seven months since has been the product of that resolve, and the 23-year-old defender from Mesa, Arizona, has emerged as one of the chief pieces in the Yanks’ bid, starting next month, to claim their first FIFA Women’s World Cup crown since that glorious summer of 1999.

Johnston made her seventh start in eight games for the U.S. Women’s National Team in Sunday night’s 5-1 romp over Mexico in front of a sellout crowd of 27,000 at StubHub Center, and she looks a good bet to snare a starting job along the backline in place of captain Christie Rampone, the last of the ‘99ers.

She’s been a first-choice center back, partnering veteran Becky Sauerbrunn, since the annual Algarve Cup in Portugal two months ago — she scored the first goal in the 2-0 title-game triumph over France — and her combination of skill, savvy and athleticism have her pegged as a foundation for the U.S. women going forward.

The time could be now, as the team heads into the June 6-July 5 World Cup in Canada. The Yanks open Group D play June 8 against Australia in Winnipeg.

“She stepped in, and it was like she’d been playing for the national team for, like, 50 years,” Sauerbrunn said. “I mean, she stepped in and there was no noticeable difference. You couldn’t tell if she had 600 caps (international appearances) or six caps. She just stepped in like a real pro, has been super professional and has been getting the job done. She’s just kind of been a superstar.”

It’s never been a matter of if, just when. Johnston captained the U.S. Under-20 team to a World Cup title three years ago, winning the Bronze Ball as the tournament’s third-best player. She was a two-time All-American at Santa Clara, and as anchor of the Chicago Red Stars’ backline was Rookie of the Year last season in the National Women’s Soccer League, America’s top-tier professional league.

But Johnston had played sparingly with the national team since her February 2013 debut — just five games with one start, covering 220 minutes, and no playing time during the qualifiers — when coach Jill Ellis thrust her into the lineup, after injuries sidelined Rampone and Whitney Engen for the Yanks’ Algarve opener against Norway. She fit in immediately.

“‘Warrior’ is kind of the word I use to describe her,” said Ellis, whose team has one more preparatory match to go, May 30 vs. South Korea in Harrison, New Jersey. “In this environment, she’s done very, very well. I felt like the piece she was missing was just the experience of playing at the international level consistently. With a couple injuries we picked up, the door opened for her, and she got time in big games, and in those big games, she played very well.”

The 5-foot-7 Johnston’s prowess in the air has been vital for the USWNT, especially in set-piece situations. She followed her headed goal against France with tallies, also from set-piece crosses by Lauren Holiday, in the Yanks’ next two games, victories in friendlies with New Zealand in early April and Ireland on May 10.

Holiday, a midfielder, says Johnston’s “commitment to get on the end of balls and to lose her defender is incredible,” and defender Ali Krieger, following Johnston’s goal against Ireland, predicted that she was “going to win us games when we’re in the World Cup.”

Julie Johnston #26 clears the ball against Amber Hearn #9 of New Zealand at Busch Stadium on April 4, 2015 in St. Louis.

It’s been something of a whirlwind for Johnston.

“It’s such a dream come true, just so awesome to be part of the team” she said over the weekend. “I’m definitely blessed to be a part of it. ... I didn’t make the initial qualifying team, and rightfully so, so I kind of had to reevaluate my own goals, and my next goal was I wanted to be on the roster for the World Cup.

“A lot of hard work and dedication that I needed to push myself even further had to happen, I guess.”

Johnston found it following the qualifiers, when she joined veteran midfielder Carli Lloyd in Philadelphia for sessions with James Galanis, a top coach Lloyd has worked with extensively.

“Carli kind of took me under her wing, allowed me to train with her and kind of learn how she is a professional and get a whole different mental side of the game,” Johnston said. “It just really helped me out and showed me a different side of the ropes that I needed and really wanted to have.”

Lloyd says that Galanis’ work with Johnston on “the mental aspects” pushed her game to a new level.

“She’s a warrior,” Lloyd said. “Someone who you’d want behind you. If we’re playing a small-sided game, she’d be the first person I would pick. Just her relentlessness.”

Johnston says she “knew the time was getting shorter to make the roster, so I just tried as hard as I could” to show Ellis she needed to be on the World Cup team. The pairing with Sauerbrunn proved most fruitful.

“It feels really good,” Sauerbrunn said of their chemistry. “We actually, before the Algarve, hadn’t even really taken reps in practice together, so we got thrown in to a game, and it just worked. She’s really easy to work with, and I think we kind of see the backline the same way and do things similarly.”

It leaves Ellis with a tough decision. Rampone, who will turn 40 in June, is a legend — she has some 304 caps, second-most in international women’s soccer to Hall of Famer Kristine Lilly’s 352 — and her experience and leadership skills could be pivotal in Canada.

It will be hard to keep Johnston off the field.

“J.J. gives us an aerial presence, Rampone gives us the pace, so that’s a balance, and that’s something that as a coach I’m going to have to look at ...” Ellis said. “What [Johnston] has to offer is huge. It’s huge for our future.”

Scott French is a writer from Southern California. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.