In her final game, Julie Ertz helps USWNT regain its joy after World Cup heartbreak

CINCINNATI — The U.S. women gave Julie Ertz the perfect send-off.

She didn’t score — not for lack of her teammates trying. Mightily — but the USWNT beat South Africa 3-0 on Thursday night and, in the process, found some of that joy they were so obviously missing at the World Cup.

“This was so much more than (me scoring),” said Ertz, who skied one header and had another go straight to the South African goalkeeper. “It was closure. It was love for the game. It was being there with my teammates one last time and my family, who’s been there since day one.

“And it was just saying bye to a dream,” she added. “Well, no. I got to live my dream. But it was saying bye to the career I had.”

The emotions were high throughout the night, both for Ertz and her teammates. Ertz cried during the pregame introductions, and again when she came out of the game in the 36th minute. She sobbed openly during the tribute video that was played after the game, and fought back tears again as she made her way around the stadium by herself to say goodbye to her fans.

Her teammates gave her rousing ovations and tight embraces. They, too, cried as she left the field for the last time.

This wasn’t just the end of Ertz’s career, it’s the ending of an era. Megan Rapinoe will play her final game with the USWNT on Sunday in Chicago, and the team will look very different going forward.

That was the beauty of this game, though, and the days that led up to it.

Ertz has enjoyed incredible success in her decade-plus with the USWNT, a two-time World Cup champion and a two-time U.S. Soccer player of the year. But as integral to the USWNT as Ertz has been, she’s always been a player who’s been more comfortable leading by example and away from the spotlight. Her work ethic, her tenacity and her focus are second to none, and she never took for granted a second that she got to play this game. Not the trainings, not the games, none of it.

Ertz got to hear what that meant to the teammates who’ve been by her side all these years. What they’ve learned from her.

But the younger players, the players who will have to carry on the legacy Ertz and Rapinoe and others leave behind, got to hear it, too.

“The younger players, being able to listen to those things, where maybe when you look at her now, you wouldn’t think of that and be able to identify in that experience and dig in, has been incredible,” interim coach Twila Kilgore said.

“And she just brings so much joy,” Kilgore added. “If you listened to any of the quotes she’s had since she’s been here, one of the things that always comes up is joy. And you can feel it.”

As much as Ertz has given the USWNT over the years, that joy might be most important now.

Julie Ertz played her final game for the USWNT on Thursday night.
Julie Ertz played her final game for the USWNT on Thursday night.

The World Cup was a disappointment for the U.S. women, no question. The quarterfinal loss to Sweden was their earliest exit ever from a major international tournament. But what was more disheartening was the way they played. Disjointed. Robotic. Uncertain.

Lacking joy.

This game, and Rapinoe’s on Sunday, gave the USWNT a chance to get that back.

On Thursday night, they played loose and free and with some of that flair everyone has come to expect from a team that’s been the world’s best for most of the last three decades. (Watch Lindsey Horan’s backheel flick that led to Lynn Williams’ second goal. You won’t be sorry.)

And it was obvious that, for the first time in a long while, the U.S. women were having fun.

“The most important thing was to go out and enjoy, play, want the ball and move for each other. Obviously to get a win and three goals to top it off was great,” Horan said.

“I think we needed this,” Horan added. “It’s a good turning point for us. We’ve got to move forward.”

That’s the thing about endings. When done right, they're usually followed by a beginning.

Ertz can still play. She proved that at the World Cup, when she was one of just three field players to play every minute. In a position she hadn’t played on a regular basis for six years, no less. But she’s ready for the next chapter in her life. To spend more time with her husband and young son, and figure out what she wants to do when training and games and travel aren’t dominating her days.

The USWNT, meanwhile, has to figure out where it goes next. Whether it will be just one of many top teams or whether it can regain its position as the world's powerhouse.

Ertz won't be there to help the team figure it out. But in leaving, she helped point them back toward the right path.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on social media @nrarmour.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Julie Ertz gives USWNT a valuable gift as she says goodbye