By Brian Trusdell | March 06, 2018, 12:18 p.m. (ET)

Julie Ertz celebrates after scoring a goal with teammate Alex Morgan against the Korea Republic on Oct. 19, 2017 in New Orleans.

 

In 2014, Mallory Pugh was the youngest player on the U.S. women’s soccer team’s FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup team, and Julie Ertz was trying to find a regular spot on the senior national team heading into the next year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup.

Four years later, both careers have taken a step forward.

Ertz is now a Women’s World Cup champion and a grizzled veteran at the ripe age of 25 while Pugh, 19, is looking to cement her place on the senior roster.

And so it’s veteran players like Ertz — and Kelley O’Hara, Morgan Brian and Alex Morgan — that coach Jill Ellis expects to guide young players like Pugh, Tierna Davidson, Taylor Smith and Savannah McCaskill through the next 15 months, a period that the Americans hope will culminate with defending their World Cup title in July 2019 in France.

“All the senior players, the veteran players have that experience behind them to know what it’s like,” Ellis said Sunday following Team USA’s 1-1 draw with France in the SheBelieves Cup in Harrison, New Jersey. “All of them understand that responsibility in terms of setting a tone and setting a standard for the younger players and helping them navigate that as they went through it themselves.”

Ertz’s role has changed from a central defender when she broke into the team in 2013 to a midfielder in Ellis’ 4-3-3 formation. It has enabled her to go forward more, and she has capitalized, scoring six goals in 2017 for the second-most on the team. That performance earned her U.S. Soccer’s Women’s Player of the Year award.

While Ertz (nee Johnston) had played midfield and forward in college at Santa Clara, she’s evolved into such a regular that she’s accumulated the seventh-most caps (or games) on the U.S. roster playing in the SheBelieves Cup.

It makes her one of the “go-to” players rather than one of the green kids.

“Communication obviously comes easier for me. I enjoy it,” Ertz said. “It’s part of my game, so if someone has a question, I have no problem. But I’m asking just as many questions as they are, because it’s important for us to come together as a team and see what each other sees and be on the same page.”

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And Ertz feels that’s most important to sort out in the next seven months, before Team USA heads to the CONCACAF Women’s Championship in October. The location of the eight-team tournament has not been set, but it will determine which three teams from the North American, Central American and Caribbean region go to the Women’s World Cup. The fourth-place finishing team will enter a playoff against a South American team for another berth.

The only two times Team USA has not won the CONCACAF Women’s Championship were in 1998, when it didn’t compete in the tournament because it was hosting the 1999 World Cup and didn’t need to qualify, and in 2010, when it was upset by host Mexico in the semifinals.

“We’re in a position this year of building toward World Cup qualifiers, and that’s why we bring three of the best teams in the world to our shores so we get tested, we get vetted, we get to feel and ebb and flow, being up and down,” Ellis said referring to the SheBelieves Cup, which features four of the world’s top six teams, based on FIFA rankings.

The exhibition tournament is in its third year with Germany, England and France facing Team USA. It concludes on Wednesday in Orlando, with Team USA facing England and Germany playing France.

“That’s why we bring these teams in to experience that,” Ellis said. “Last year we had a lot of different players in. This year we’ve kept pretty much the similar core. Obviously a few players are out because of injury, but this is the group we want to move forward with. Now it’s getting better at what we do.”

For Pugh, who debuted with Team USA in February 2016 and scored a goal in three games at the Rio Olympics later that summer, her integration has been faster and more intense. The Highlands Ranch, Colorado, native has relied on O’Hara for guidance, which will only become more important as the CONCACAF championship and World Cup near.

“Just having the Olympics it really was a big test. After that, your just like ‘Ah.’ The more experience you get, the more you’re on this team,” said Pugh, who had Team USA’s lone goal Sunday against France. “Nothing’s ever given to you. Every time you get called in, especially with this next two years coming up, it’s going to be huge.”

Brian Trusdell has covered four FIFA World Cups and six Olympic Games during his more than 30 years as a sportswriter, mostly with the Associated Press and Bloomberg News. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.