CINCINNATI — The U.S. national team program said farewell to one of their most prolific players on Thursday as Julie Ertz officially stepped away from the game after multiple titles and accolades. The defensive player retires to shift her focus toward family, a priority she has also placed emphasis on during her career. A night served as the farewell game for the legendary American.
She leaves the game with two World Cups, an Olympic medal and a club career spent entirely in the National Women’s Soccer League. Ertz made a return to the pitch earlier this year after navigating a knee injury and later maternity leave. Her comeback in April made headlines just four months out from the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup. Despite the USWNT’s early exit during the tournament, there was praise for the defensive backline, where the coaching staff slotted Ertz at center back.
The move brought curiosity and criticism on Ertz’s “preferred role” as a player, previously winning World Cups both as a center back in 2015 and a defensive midfielder in 2019. Would the shift back offer an opportunity for Ertz to prolong her already iconic career? The answer belonged to Ertz, and ultimately, her departure comes with peace of mind and a final decision on her terms.
Please check the opt-in box to acknowledge that you would like to subscribe.
Thanks for signing up!
Keep an eye on your inbox.
There was an error processing your subscription.
“It’s not because Momma can’t play. Momma can play,” she told the media ahead of her farewell match in Cincinnati.
She’s leaving behind an iconic playing career where she dominated across multiple lines, delivered on details, and re-established the USWNT as the top program in the world during her era.
Defensive powerhouse with a magical noggin
The team had been to the World Cup final in 2011 and fell short of the title, still chasing a World Cup in the new millennium. Shadows of the previous team generations still loomed large over multiple cycles before a different pool of players claimed the decade as their own. Ertz’s role with the senior national team came after the runners-up finish for the USWNT.
Ertz’s shift into a center back role came post-college career after playing with Santa Clara as a midfielder. Drafted by the Chicago Red Stars, she earned NWSL Rookie of the Year honors in 2014. Her breakout performances earned her more call-ups with the senior national team in her sophomore club season. Eventually, she earned a place on the USWNT 2015 World Cup roster playing as a rookie center back partner to Becky Sauerbrunn.
She helped set a U.S. record for the longest shutout streak at a World Cup tournament with 539 minutes, just 6 seconds shy of breaking the record set by the 2003 World Cup-winning Germany team. A quick turnaround to the Olympic Games in 2016 led to a misfortunate early exit in the knockout rounds, their first non-medal performance.
Early in the 2017 NWSL season, Ertz was playing an attacking mid role for the club and as former USWNT head coach Jill Ellis continued to tinker with formations post-Olympic elimination, Ertz’s overperformances in the midfield earned her more looks at the position at the national team level and went on to earn U.S. Soccer Player of the Years honors.
A significant core of the 2015 World Cup team remained for another repeat performance in the 2019 World Cup. This time Ertz’s role was as ball winner and disrupter as the team’s definitive defensive midfielder. She was a frequent target during set pieces and made scoring on near-post headers a work of art. While she was constantly surveying the pitch, always looking for the next outlet, fans of the game were also turning their necks, following her play.
Myself included and fortunately for me, Chicago is my hometown, and during her time with her former club, I was able to witness Ertz’s impact on her Chicago Red Stars, fans and other admirers up close. One day at the training grounds, both teams, the Red Stars and MLS side Chicago Fire, were there, and it offered a brief glimpse into mutual respect towards two greats at their positions. Another World Cup winner, Germany’s Bastian Schweinsteiger, was playing for Chicago Fire at the time.
In between teams shifting training sessions, he called after Ertz and said, “I’m just trying to make sure you’re okay because of always turning your head on pitch.”
She replies,”Are you?” and quipped, “It helps to have good examples in the game to mimic.”
The two were complimentary of one another, and went on to chat about the game, and how vision on the pitch is key to the role.
It was a small moment, but an example of Ertz’s reach on the game internationally and the level of respect she brought into the program.
Legacy of being fierce
Her reputation as a fierce competitor might be missed the most. Throughout her career, and in the lead-up to her farewell game, her teammates have credited her as someone whose play elevated the performance of those around her. A player who often demanded more on the pitch, others made sure to rise to her level. But there are those who also have made note of her humility over the course of her career.
Interim head coach Twila Kilgore was able to coach Ertz as she returned to play earlier this year. A moment she didn’t think would come with Ertz’s extended absence, but now can say she coached her in her final game.
“There’s a few things that stand out that I think anybody who’s been in the environment would have to notice, and that number one is just her humility. And after everything that she’s done in this sport, just how humble she is,” said Kilgore.
“I mean, from the very first practice, the very first thing you notice is her attention to detail is just going to be at another level. Her communication about everything that’s going on and all the details that are related to that. I always say to the players ‘It’s a full-time job to be a coach and know all the things that we know about the opponent’ and stuff like that –but Julie Ertz knows all those things. And if you’re not careful, she’ll beat you to it. So her level of detail is incredible. Her professionalism is incredible. Her openness and willingness to collaborate with coaches, with other players, in training, in the hotel and at the field, is incredible.”
For Ertz, she’s also a player who has been part of farewell games for others who have left their mark. Shannon Boxx is a former defensive mid and hall of famer who is credited with redefining the position, and there is an iconic image of her farewell match with Ertz by her side.
Now for the 31-year-old Ertz, she’s been on the receiving end of well-wishes, praise and gratitude for her impact on and off the pitch. Teammates expressed emotion and shared what she meant all week and over her career. The farewell game brought her a sense of closure and she’s leaving it with the same humility she’s been praised with.
“It is an honor, I don’t think I’ve quite understood that. I think that I’ve had the kindest of words from you guys [in the media] and from the team. I think we’re all human. And you know, on a daily basis, you don’t tell somebody — just the appreciation and the things that they’ve noticed about you — that you hoped carried on, but you didn’t realize that somebody appreciated as much as they did,” Ertz said.
“So, I think, just the kind words of a career, that you genuinely just want to leave an impact. And somebody’s like, ‘Hey, I saw that impact,’ I think goes a really long way. So, I think, I think I don’t quite get it, but I’m really appreciative of those who have voiced it. Because as a player, that’s what you want to do. To even be [among] the names of that, to even actually have a farewell game, not everybody has that. So, I think that alone, when U.S. Soccer told me that they wanted to do that, was an eye-opening time for me.”
Moving forward, who replaces her?
Truth is no one will ever replace what Ertz brought to the program. Just like no one ever really replaced Lauren Holiday or Boxx and so on. Each player helped define the defensive mid and centerback roles on the USWNT, and perhaps in the next generation, someone else will help redefine it. As Ertz was subbed out in the game in the 35th minute, Andi Sullivan slotted in for her. Emily Sonnet has been playing as the No. 6 since the World Cup, and Sam Coffey has elevated her game in her sophomore club season with Portland Thorns FC.
The team is still processing their stunning World Cup exit, and the program is in the process of finding a new head coach. But one thing that is not going away anytime soon is the pipeline of talent for U.S. Soccer. Just as we say thank you and goodbye to one athlete, another player is growing up with their own dream of becoming a midfield icon just like Ertz.