Julie Ertz passes the ball in a game against Mexico on May 26, 2019 in Harrison, N.J.
Julie Ertz doesn’t care where she plays on the field, just as long as she plays. And according to U.S. women’s soccer teammate Alyssa Naeher, it doesn’t matter, because: “At Julie’s heart, she’s always going to be a hard-nosed defender.”
The 27-year-old Ertz has transitioned from central defender in 2015 to defensive midfielder in recent years, and she’s likely to feature in both roles as the U.S. aims to defend its title at the FIFA Women’s World Cup.
Though Ertz has primarily played in the midfield for the U.S. in the run-up to the World Cup, she made a surprise return as a central defender in Tuesday’s opener, replacing the injured Becky Sauerbrunn. Ertz played 69 minutes before being subbed out in the tournament-record 13-0 win over Thailand.
It’s a versatility that serves coach Jill Ellis, even if Ertz returns to the midfield for Sunday’s meeting with Chile.
“We changed systems, so moving Julie into the midfield to be a player who sits in front of our back line, but could also drop into our back line, if needed, gives us that bridge between our attack and our defense in terms of our lines,” Ellis said prior to the tournament.
Ertz — then known by her maiden name of Julie Johnston — was a key element of a defense that allowed only three goals in seven games at the 2015 Women’s World Cup, which the Americans ultimately won. Her shift from center back to center midfielder came two years later, in 2017, a year when a lot of changes were happening in her life, not the least of which was her marriage to Philadelphia Eagles tight end Zach Ertz in March.
Immediately, the move clicked.
Although she played fewer games (12) than she had since joining the national team full-time in 2015, Ertz scored more goals (six) than she had in any year before — and was only two goals shy of her total in 45 games over the previous four years. The performance earned her U.S. Soccer’s female player of the year award.
“I like to play anywhere,” said Ertz, who came up through the U.S. Soccer youth national teams as a midfielder but took on the role of central defender shortly into her career with the senior side. “I’ve grown to love midfield. It came at a time in my life when I had a lot of changes.”
The shift of Ertz to the midfield also came after the U.S. was beaten by Sweden in the quarterfinals of the Olympic Games Rio 2016, its earliest exit from a major tournament —World Cup or Olympics — in the program’s history.
Ellis felt she had to revamp the team’s approach, changing from a typical formation with four defenders, four midfielders and two forwards to one with three midfielders and three forwards. The formation is designed to counter a staunchly defensive approach like the one Sweden employed.
Ertz played in only four of Team USA’s first eight games in 2017 while she got married and went on her honeymoon. She returned in July for the Tournament of Nations in the United States and came off the bench against Brazil in the second game of the tournament.
Ertz, who was familiar with the midfield position – playing there with her club team, the Chicago Red Stars – said: “They asked me to play midfield, and I didn’t ask questions.”
She scored the winner in the 89th minute of a 4-3 victory and has remained in the center of Team USA’s midfield since — at least until Tuesday.
Whether or not Sauerbrunn returns and Ertz moves back to the midfield, Ertz has shown she has the versatility to thrive in both positions.
Against Mexico on May 26, in the final friendly before heading to France and the Women’s World Cup, Ertz started in her regular midfield spot. But when Ellis made five substitutions at halftime, including replacing Sauerbrunn with Mallory Pugh. Ertz then returned to the middle of defense while Pugh pushed up.
Yet her nearly two years as a midfielder clearly left an impression. Ertz was pushing forward from her defender spot late in the game and toe-flicked a cross from Pugh on the right flank into the feet of Christen Press.
Press settled the ball at the top of the penalty area, turned and drilled a shot inside the right post for the final goal in a 3-0 victory.
“For me as a midfielder, in comparison to our other midfielders, I’m a defender first,” Ertz said. “I think it’s pretty clear. I enjoy being on defense. A center back is a very unique position, and I’ve learned so much there. I love being a center back. I’ve loved the new challenges of being a midfielder, but it doesn’t mean I can’t be a defensively-minded midfielder as well.
“I love having my own creativity on attack as well.”
Brian Trusdell has covered four FIFA World Cups and six Olympic Games during his more than 30 years as a sportswriter. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.