Julie Ertz soaks in emotional return to pitch for USWNT: 'She's back like she never left'

Julie Ertz was honored for earning her 100th cap prior to the U.S. women's national team's friendly against Ireland in Austin, Texas. (Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

AUSTIN, Texas — Julie Ertz’s special day began as special days often do with the U.S. women’s national team. There are ceremonies the public sees, framed jerseys to commemorate achievements, but also “things that happen internally, that the outside world doesn't get to see, that are also really touching and lovely,” captain Becky Sauerbrunn says. On Saturday morning here in Austin, behind the scenes, there was a mashup of memories that made Ertz well with emotion. There were video clips that documented her rise from the U.S. under-20 team all the way to her 100th USWNT cap, which was the subject of today’s celebration.

It was also a milestone that Ertz reached on March 5, 2020.

To celebrate it three years later was “odd” and “bizarre,” Ertz admitted Friday, and — “I think, um” — she turned her head, searching for words and simultaneously trying to escape emotion. But she couldn’t. She wiped away an emerging tear. Words never came.

In that three-year interim, COVID-19 shut down soccer. An injury then sidelined Ertz after the postponed Tokyo Olympics. Pregnancy then prolonged her absence. Her postpartum road back to the sport was nonlinear and tough.

So when her 20-month absence finally ended; and when she slipped into a paint-spattered USWNT jersey on Saturday; and when she emerged from a Q2 Stadium tunnel to find her family, including her husband Zach and baby Madden, this became a celebration of much more than a round number. She waved to a sellout crowd as she soaked in her pregame moment before the U.S. would face Ireland in a friendly. She hugged Kate Markgraf and Cindy Parlow Cone, who triple as U.S. Soccer officials, fellow moms and former USWNTers. She greeted her family, kissed Zach, took Madden into her arms, and posed for an on-field photo, beaming.

Then she ducked back behind a yellow rope, behind photographers and the U.S. coaching staff, to the very end of a line of USWNT reserves.

She grabbed a water bottle, as all subs do in the moments before kickoff, and supplied it to the woman starting ahead of her, Andi Sullivan.

She went from the outskirts of the pregame huddle to a second-row seat on the bench, tugged on a warmup jacket and substitute’s bib, and settled in for an unfamiliar view.

Ertz, 31, has been the talk of the town, the subject of media attention, the player to whom all eyes drifted this week in training camp, the national team’s last before they gather in June ahead of the World Cup. But Saturday was also a reminder that, despite her stature, she had not played a competitive soccer match since August 2021, and does not have a professional club.

Teammates and coaches raved this week about how great it was to have her back. “Julie Ertz is looking good,” head coach Vlatko Andonovski said Friday with a teasing smile.

“It's exciting to have her voice back on the field,” Lindsey Horan said. In their first training session together, Horan added, “it looked like the Julie I knew.”

But they also knew she’d have a rhythm to refind, and match-fitness to reattain, and a place in the starting 11 to win back.

And even if she were in tip-top form, even if she were the best defensive midfielder on the roster, the one Andonovski would turn to for a World Cup elimination game tomorrow, he could not possibly allow her to automatically unseat Sullivan, a trusted presence in Ertz’s absence, and one who has thoroughly earned her place.

So when Andonovski rolled out a first-choice 11 on Saturday, it was Sullivan who waltzed onto the field with the starters, and Ertz who clapped from behind the yellow rope as she awaited her pregame ceremony.

But of course, she was not just any substitute. When she entered the game in the 67th minute, with the U.S. leading 1-0, Sauerbrunn took off the captain’s armband and slid it onto Ertz’s left arm. When Sullivan gave her words of encouragement and a little push as she sprinted onto the field, fans roared.

Then Ertz misplaced three unnecessarily ambitious passes.

She rampaged forward, recklessly out of position.

She connected with a couple headers, and flung herself at a few others, and then, just five minutes after entering the field, picked up the USWNT’s only yellow card of the game.

All of which made midfield partner Rose Lavelle think: “Oh yeah, she's back like she never left.”

“​​I just think my eyes were the size of my whole face,” Ertz said of that moment when her first chance at a trademark disruptive tackle flashed before her, when Ireland’s Katie McCabe burst through midfield and Ertz hacked her down.

“I think my excitement got the best of me,” Ertz continued with a grin. “I'll make sure to rein that back and be a little bit more clean on my technique.”

No harm done, as the U.S. won 2-0.

She was rusty, but “still kinda beaming through it all,” she said. “It was fun to get competitive juices flowing.” The mistakes, the rampaging, the rushed passes were all “understandable at this point in time,” Andonovski said. He was happy “because she was happy,” and so were her teammates.

“She's just kind of like an enforcer in there,” Lavelle said. “She's an ankle-cruncher. She's gonna get stuck in. Her energy is, like, amazing. Especially when it comes to set pieces, her attention to detail's incredible. And yeah, it's great to have her back.”

“And yes,” Andonovski admitted, “we were trying to direct her a little bit. She was getting a little bit off-script.” But he didn’t mind.

The joy was what mattered.

The reflections on 100 caps and the moments with family will be the ones remembered.

After months of work, and a week of renewed firsts, and a Saturday full of emotion, Ertz said postgame, “I don't think I have any more tears to even cry.”