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
"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."