The U.S. women’s national team’s biggest hole tentatively and stunningly closed on Tuesday, when Julie Ertz was named to the USWNT’s last pre-World Cup roster after nearly 20 months away from soccer.
Ertz, a two-time world champion who’d been a fearsome fixture in midfield, has not played for the USWNT since the Tokyo Olympics. In fact, it’s been 600 days since she last played a competitive match of any kind. She gave birth to a son, Madden, in August 2022. She remains a free agent, without a professional club.
So her inclusion on a 26-woman roster for two April friendlies against Ireland, the USWNT’s last games before the World Cup squad will be named in June, was somewhere between eye-opening and astonishing.
But head coach Vlatko Andonovski said that Ertz has been “training very hard” for months, with personal coaches and with a boys academy team. Andonovski had visited her in person, and said she “was up to the level [of] a lot of professional players.” Medical staffs cleared her. Andonovski said that Ertz was “in negotiations with a team or teams” about a return to the NWSL, “and pretty soon I’m sure we’ll have news on that front.”
So he extended an invite, with a view toward a potential World Cup invite. “We know the quality of the player,” Andonovski said via Zoom on Tuesday, “and that if she comes anywhere near her best, that she will certainly help us win a World Cup.”
Julie Ertz’s 20-month absence
Ertz, 30, has hardly spoken publicly since essentially stepping away from the sport after the Olympics in August 2021. She’d entered that tournament with a bum knee after spraining her MCL in an NWSL match a couple months prior. She didn’t play the rest of the 2021 NWSL season, and didn’t return to the national team, either.
Speaking last winter, prior to Ertz’s pregnancy announcement, USWNT head coach Vlatko Andonovski said:
“I’ve spoken with Julie before, and I’ve said this before: Julie was not ready to come into camp from a physical standpoint. And in the conversations that I’ve had with her, she understands that in order to get back into camp — and that’s not just for Julie, that’s for any player on the team — first and foremost, you’ve got to be healthy, fit and ready to play.
“And then the next thing is you’ve got to perform in your club market to earn your spot on the national team. So, whenever Julie is ready, and she performs well, we know how good she can be. We know how valuable she is for the team. We’re going to be happy to get her back.”
The pregnancy announcement came in April, a couple months after Angel City FC, who’d traded for her NWSL rights, said that Ertz was not planning to play at all in 2022. When the 2022 season concluded, she became a free agent. Months later, as of the NWSL’s 2023 opening weekend, she still had not signed with a club.
All the while, Andonovski had been in touch with Ertz. But in public comments, he’d grown increasingly pessimistic about her World Cup prospects. In January, he said:
“We had a conversation, and obviously she needs a little more time to prepare before she even starts training with the team. So, we just decided to give her a little more space and time until she’s fully ready to join.”
A few weeks later, in February, after selecting a roster that did not include Ertz, Andonovski said:
“Obviously we see that she hasn’t committed to any team in the league so far, and the time is running out, pretty much … She’s someone that we’re probably not gonna be able to count on in the World Cup.”
Speaking about Ertz and fellow midfielder Sam Mewis, he said, in part:
“These are two big names that may be or will be absent from the World Cup. … And this is something that we have planned for, and that’s why we’ve tried different names, different players in these positions.”
There had been no indication prior to Tuesday that Ertz was set to return. But behind the scenes, she’d been working with both a high-performance trainer and a technical trainer to build herself back into an elite player. After clearance from both a personal physician and the USWNT’s medical staff, Andonovski said he and his staff “established that she’s ready to join us in camp.”
“Her mindset is superb,” Andonovski said. “She’s committed. She’s committed to the game. She’s committed to this team … Fully committed in every aspect of it. She’s ready physically. She’s ready mentally.”
Ertz’s World Cup roster chances
Ertz admitted in a Tuesday statement through a U.S. Soccer spokesman that she still needs “to work out details in regards to my club situation.” Andonovski told her, and reiterated Tuesday, that “consistent games” in a pro league are a prerequisite for USWNT consideration. But he essentially made an exception for Ertz in April because timelines are tight, and if they can work together to accelerate her return, he knows that Ertz can be impactful.
Her inclusion does not mean that she is suddenly a lock to make the World Cup roster. Andonovski stated Tuesday that “she will have to earn some minutes. Nothing’s gonna be given.” But in the same answer, he said that “we certainly will see her on the field” in April 8 and 11 games in Austin and St. Louis.
He also said he’d be “patient” with Ertz, “as patient as we can afford to be at this moment, to give her a chance to get back.” Because, despite his reassurances that “we are happy with the team that we have,” he surely knows that Ertz could be a last-minute solution to the team’s most notable recent shortcoming.
Ertz’s physical presence and wrecking ball-like ability to break up opponents’ attacks have been unparalleled in the U.S. player pool for a while now. Ever since her transition from center back to defensive mid in 2017, she allowed the national team to play with two more attacking-minded midfielders ahead of her — often some combination of Mewis, Rose Lavelle and Lindsey Horan.
In her absence, Andonovski has stuck with the same 4-3-3 formation, with a similar midfield structure. He has often inserted Andi Sullivan into Ertz’s position. But Sullivan, while a serviceable defensive midfielder, is not a destroyer, and definitely not a like-for-like Ertz replacement. So, as a consequence, the USWNT midfield has often lacked bite.
In January, with the World Cup six months away, Andonovski began piloting alternate solutions, but the sobering reality was and has been that nobody can replicate Ertz’s impact. So the latest solution — and probably the last, with the World Cup in less than four months — is to see if Ertz can replicate her mid-20s self.
That, of course, is no guarantee. Andonovski stressed Tuesday that he’s “been very pleased with Andi Sullivan and her progression. So Julie coming in doesn’t mean that everyone moves [to] the side and Julie gets into that spot.”
But he also indicated that he’d happily take a player at 80 or 90% “if somebody’s 80 or 90% is still better than somebody else’s best.” And his selections in recent years have all but disproved the notion that players’ form in the NWSL, week in and week out, will change his mind one way or the other.
USWNT’s full April roster
Elsewhere on the roster, defenders Kelley O’Hara and Tierna Davidson are back after long-term injury layoffs. Casey Krueger also returns for the first time since 2021, after giving birth to her son in July 2022.
They are three of 10 defenders in total; the 23-woman World Cup roster will likely include eight, meaning April’s camp will serve as an internal competition for places on the plane to New Zealand in July.
Up front, Sophia Smith is back after recovering from a foot injury. Megan Rapinoe is absent after missing the OL Reign’s NWSL opener with a minor calf injury. Catarina Macario, who tore her ACL last June, also remains absent despite previous optimism that April could be an opportunity to welcome the star attacker back into the fold.
“I think she’s supposed to be on the field sometime beginning of next month,” Andonovski said Tuesday. But that will be with her club, Lyon; so she’ll enter June and roster decision day without having played for the USWNT in over a year.
Elsewhere, with Lynn Williams included, there’s no room on the April roster for electric 18-year-old winger Alyssa Thompson. Here’s the full roster:
Goalkeepers (3): Adrianna Franch (Kansas City Current), Casey Murphy (North Carolina Courage), Alyssa Naeher (Chicago Red Stars)
Defenders (10): Alana Cook (OL Reign), Tierna Davidson (Chicago Red Stars), Emily Fox (North Carolina Courage), Crystal Dunn (Portland Thorns), Naomi Girma (San Diego Wave), Sofia Huerta (OL Reign), Casey Krueger (Chicago Red Stars), Kelley O’Hara (NJ/NY Gotham), Becky Sauerbrunn (Portland Thorns), Emily Sonnett (OL Reign)
Midfielders (7): Julie Ertz (Unattached), Lindsey Horan (Lyon), Taylor Kornieck (San Diego Wave), Rose Lavelle (OL Reign), Kristie Mewis (NJ/NY Gotham), Ashley Sanchez (Washington Spirit), Andi Sullivan (Washington Spirit)
Forwards (6): Ashley Hatch (Washington Spirit), Alex Morgan (San Diego Wave), Trinity Rodman (Washington Spirit), Sophia Smith (Portland Thorns), Mallory Swanson (Chicago Red Stars), Lynn Williams (NJ/NY Gotham)