Julie Ertz wasn't always a central midfielder for the U.S. national team, but since she moved into midfield she's been arguably the USA's most indispensable player.
Injured in the Chicago Red Stars' NWSL regular-season opener on May 16, Ertz had not again played a game until she entered the USA's opening game at the Olympics against Sweden in the second half. The USA was a mess and suffered a 3-0 loss, its worst defeat in a competitive match in almost 14 years.
On Saturday, Ertz started against New Zealand, and it was a different story. The marauding Ertz helped stabilize the midfield and provided the assist on Lindsey Horan's goal just before halftime that changed the complexion of the game.
Instead of leading, 1-0, after a somewhat nervy display -- the Football Ferns almost equalized shortly before Horan's goal -- the USA went into the break with a 2-0 lead and breezed to a 6-1 win in Saitama.
Before the match, U.S. coach Vlatko Andonovski said the minute restriction on Ertz for the first game was lifted, and he expected her to play more minutes against New Zealand. Ertz went the distance and finished with two assists.
“I think we had more energy from the get-go,” Ertz told reporters after the match. “We came out wanting to score goals and make a statement. Obviously, we weren’t satisfied with the last game and we had to have a fresh start. And we were able to do that.”
Ertz (née Johnston) was a midfielder at Santa Clara University but played at center back when she won the Bronze Ball at the 2012 Under-20 World Cup in Japan, where the USA defeated Germany, 1-0, in the final.
Her emergence on the senior national team came relatively late in the 2015 World Cup cycle. Captain Christie Rampone was injured at the Algarve Cup, and Ertz was inserted into the lineup. Rampone, who finished her career with 311 caps, never won her starting job back, and Ertz played every minute of the seven games at the World Cup alongside Becky Sauerbrunn in the middle of the backline.
Ertz remained on the backline at the 2016 Olympics, where the USA was eliminated by Sweden in the quarterfinals, but she moved to midfield afterwards and has played there almost every game ever since. (She replaced the injured Sauerbrunn at center back for the opening game of the 2019 World Cup, the 13-0 demolition of France.)
"I love being a center back, don’t get me wrong,” she said before the tournament in France. “But I love the new challenges of being a midfielder, but it doesn’t mean I still can’t be a defensive-minded midfielder first."
Ertz's two assists against New Zealand give her six assists in 112 games for the USA to go along with 20 goals.
"I love having my own creativity on the attack and being in there as well," she said, "but at the end of the day, I know my role is to break up plays and do whatever they ask of me.”
Ertz's presence in the U.S. lineup gave Horan, who played the No. 6 role in Ertz's absence, more freedom to move into the attack. That quickly paid off as Horan was free at the top of the penalty area to feed Tobin Heath, whose pass set up Rose Lavelle for the game's first goal.
“In this game, it was coming out and changing absolutely everything,” Horan said. “Changing our approach, our mentality, doing everything we possibly could to not have that same feeling at the start."