USA grooms new goddess of the air

By Paul Kennedy

As sports teams go, the U.S. women's national team is tough to break into. But once you're in, you're in.

Three years ago, the players then-U.S. head coach Pia Sundhage selected for the London Olympics averaged 91 caps. On Sunday, Lori Chalupny became the 32nd U.S. woman to earn her 100th cap; she'll be one of nine players headed to Canada next month with 100 or more caps.

All that makes the rise of Julie Johnston all the more remarkable. Six months ago, the former Santa Clara star didn't make the U.S. roster for Concacaf qualifying. But with all of 10 caps, she will likely be in the starting lineup when the USA opens against Australia on June 8 in Winnipeg. Just two other newcomers are expected to start -- Christen Press and Meghan Klingenberg -- and they were both alternates on the 18-player roster at the 2012 Olympics.

Johnston was a popular choice in the media as the sort of new blood the U.S. women needed since she won the Bronze Ball in helping the USA capture the 2012 Under-20 Women's World Cup. She was named the 2014 NWSL Rookie of the Year with Chicago but says being cut from the national team for qualifying in October was the best thing that could have happened.

"It was definitely a setback," she said of not being named to the 20-player roster (23 players are going to Canada). "But it was a setback I needed. I didn't deserve to go, I wasn't playing well enough to make the 20-man roster. It was the experience I needed to push myself further than I had ever done so far. I definitely reevaluated things and went back and talked to coaches about what I need to work on and I reached out to the girls, which is something hard to do, especially if you're one of the younger girls. One I really reached to is Carli [Lloyd], and she helped me path the way."

Unlike the men whose clubs play almost every week throughout the year, the women's club season is only six months, so Johnston was on her own after being cut in October until the national team reassembled in December for a tournament in Brazil. She said that break was not a problem.

"It was a tuneup where I could just work on my individual self," she said. "Being a part of the team and with the team again really helped me with speed of play but there were components that I could really work on myself."

Johnston says she worked a lot on her fitness -- which might sound strange given her extraordinary leaping ability and physical presence. That had caught the attention of U.S. coach Jill Ellis, who says she had followed Johnston since the 2012 U-20 Women's World Cup, where the USA beat Germany, 1-0, in the final. "You saw there she's a warrior," said Ellis. "So she was very deserving of being in this team."

The problem was getting international experience for Johnston -- especially critical for what Ellis described as the "pressure cooker" that is playing at center back -- with Christie Rampone (304 caps), Becky Sauerbrunn and Whitney Engen all ahead of her.

Johnston's break came when Rampone was sidelined with back problems at the beginning of the year, and Engen, who had started alongside Sauerbrunn in friendlies at France and England in February, injured her hamstring on the eve of the Algarve Cup.

"With Rampone and Engen going down," said Ellis, "the door opened. And now she's got that experience. That's the piece that was for me missing at this level. Playing in front of 35,000 fans, those kind of things. In terms of what she brings, she's phenomenal ability in the air.  She is comfortable with and passing the ball.  She reads the game very well. On both sides of the ball, she gives us a lot. I'd say at this point she's locked up a starting position."

All that USA has done since Johnston was inserted in the middle of backline is run off five straight shutouts since a 2-1 win over Norway to open the Algarve Cup. Johnston scored the winning goal as the USA beat France, 2-0, to win the Algarve Cup and gain revenge for the 2-0 loss in Lorient a month earlier. And she followed that up with goals against New Zealand in St. Louis and Ireland in San Jose.

Abby Wambach has been a dominating presence in the air for the USA for a decade -- her second goal against Ireland on Sunday gave her 76 goals on headers out of her world record 180 goals -- but with her taking a reduced role in the U.S. squad, Johnston is being groomed as the go-to target on set pieces. Ellis said Swedish assistant Tony Gustavsson has taken over for departed Paul Rogers as the coach responsible for organizing set pieces and they've been simplified.

Johnston's dominance in the air has always been her trademark.

"Air presence is something I've thoroughly enjoyed since I was young," said Johnston, who played for Sereno SC growing up in Arizona. "To win the ball in the air was the competitive thing I wanted to do and I enjoyed it."

Johnston says she learns from the goddess of the air, Wambach, every day they go up against each other in practice.

"There are times when I go up with her and foul her," she said, "but I am learning. The best thing is she lets me use her as a learning tool, how the best players in the world use their bodies and position themselves in the air."

Johnston isn't a one-dimensional player, though. She blew past her marker to reach out and stab Lauren Holiday's corner kick into the Irish goal for the third goal on Sunday.

"I was jumping up and down like she was my daughter," said Brandi Chastain, herself a star defender with an offensive bent to her game and and an assistant to her husband, Jerry Smith, at Santa Clara, where Johnston starred. "I said to Jerry, 'I had this feeling Julie was going to score.' And he goes, 'I think Julie’s going to score in every game.’"

Chastain, who earned 192 caps and scored 30 goals, in a 17-year national team career, says Johnson combines good instincts with unique athletic ability.

"In general," she said, "she’s just such a good soccer player that she understands how the games moves. She knows ahead of time what’s going to happen but her physical gift is she has this great ability to spring to something that’s close by. Not many people can score that goal but because she has such great agility she gets to it. It’s special."

1 comment about "USA grooms new goddess of the air".
  1. R2 Dad, May 13, 2015 at 1:01 a.m.

    Sounds like a great addition, but I'm curious: "You saw there she's a warrior," said Ellis. "So she was very deserving of being in this team." Aren't we beyond the Warrior Stage of soccer development? Shouldn't we have graduated to the Skilled Technician level? If our back line starts playing long balls during the WC because of technical deficiencies, I'll be sorely disappointed regardless of who is back there. I'm mostly concerned about the message this sends to our young girls, since I routinely see GU8-GU12 playing through injuries, trying to "tough it out", and running through opponents. They want to be tough, they want to be Warriors.

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