Even before Julie Ertz gave birth to her son, Madden, last August, she knew it would be a challenge to return to the fitness and form that would be required of her if she wanted to play in a third Women’s World Cup.
Pregnancy and childbirth, unlike sports injuries, offer no reliable timeline for return, no proven handbook to guide a player back from what is a life-changing event. More important, Ertz, who was 30 when Madden was born, wanted to gauge her progress discreetly before she made any promises to the national team. To pull that off without attracting attention, Ertz was going to need help.
A group of teenage boys answered the call.
Ertz was in Phoenix, which is her hometown and where her husband, Zach, plays tight end for the Arizona Cardinals. She reached out to two of the coaches who knew her best: Paul Taylor and Matt Midkiff, who had helped guide her development from preteen prodigy to college all-American. Taylor and Midkiff connected Ertz with Phoenix Rising, a United Soccer League club with a Major League Soccer Academy program. Ertz arranged to begin training with the club’s under-19 team in February.
When Taylor informed the boys on the team that Julie Ertz would be coming to practice, many of the players greeted the news with blank stares.
“At first, I was star-struck,” said Burns, 17. “I don’t think many of my teammates really knew who she was. But I was one of the only ones who was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is crazy.’”
Burns, who has committed to play at the University of Virginia, said his older sister, who also plays college soccer, got him into watching women’s soccer at a young age. He knew the players. He knew their histories and their highlights. Still, he said, it took him 15 minutes to work up the courage to introduce himself to Ertz at her first training session. It took even less time to sense that she was a cut above.
“Even on the first day of training that we had with her, she was in the best shape out of all of us,” Burns said. “She would do extra sprints after practice. She would do these little things to become a bit better. And it showed me that if I wanted to go to the professional level, I have to do those extra things as well.”
Taylor said Ertz set a high standard for herself in their first conversation. If she was going to come back, she told him, she did not want to simply come back as the player she was before. She wanted to be better than anyone remembered, better than even she could remember.
“I know the expectation and standards that this team has,” Ertz said. “And I didn’t want to go into any camp if I wasn’t feeling like I could actually compete.”
For Ertz, that motivation came from an intimate knowledge of the national team and the role she would need to play to contribute at this World Cup. At the time she returned to training, the national team’s captain and defensive linchpin, Becky Sauerbrunn, was struggling with a foot injury. (Sauerbrunn was eventually left off the World Cup roster.) Sam Mewis, a midfielder who had played a pivotal role in the team’s 2019 World Cup championship, was enduring repeated setbacks with her injured knee. (Mewis may never play elite soccer again.)
Without them, Ertz knew, the U.S. team was in need of experience and leadership at the back. It needed her to be the glue that held the spine of the team together.
But by February, the clock was ticking. When U.S. Coach Vlatko Andonovski released a training camp roster for the SheBelieves Cup, Ertz’s absence was not a surprise. Still, Andonovski warned, “time is running out for her.”
As the pressure mounted, Ertz remained committed to taking things slow. She knew she needed to reach peak performance quickly, but she also knew she couldn’t rush it.
By March, national team staff members had seen Ertz play with Phoenix Rising in scrimmages and had come away impressed. Talk of her returning for the World Cup began to circulate inside the team. Defender Kelley O’Hara, who has played with Ertz for 10 years, said she tried to manage her excitement when it began to sound possible that Ertz would make it back in time.
“I started texting her,” O’Hara said, excitedly miming a typing motion with her fingers. “Not trying to put too much pressure, and not trying to, you know, sway her decision. But she’s awesome and she’s an incredible teammate to have, especially in tournaments like this.”
In late March, Andonovski called Ertz into her first training camp since the Tokyo Olympics in 2021. In April, Ertz returned to club soccer by signing with Angel City of the National Women’s Soccer League. Slowly increasing her workload and fitness, Ertz showed Andonovski enough that he named her to his 23-player roster for the World Cup. Days later, in her final game before she left the club to join the national team for training, she played 97 minutes. Her comeback was complete.
“It’s been competitive, which is what you need,” Ertz said of her two months with Angel City. “It’s been an environment to be able to thrive.”
Now a bigger task awaits. She and her U.S. teammates will open the World Cup on Friday night (Eastern time) in Auckland, New Zealand. Madden Ertz and his father will be in the stands cheering. Julie Ertz will probably be right in the middle of the field. Right where she wanted to be. Right where her team needs her.