The rising star of the U.S. women's national team's bid for a World Cup title

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Yahoo Sports

One of the keys to winning this Women's World Cup may rest at the feet of the player with the coloring book.

Julie Johnston, the 23-year-old who went from the fringe of the United States women's national team roster to a mainstay on the backline, spends her long flights coloring. She has a full set of crayons and even a book with stickers. Minnie Mouse adorns the headphones she wears in the mixed zone – peeled from the pages of her trusty book.

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Don't mistake the hobby for immaturity, though. Johnston has been one of the headiest players in the tournament so far, winning Player of the Match on Friday against Nigeria in a game where Hope Solo kept a clean sheet and Abby Wambach scored. Not bad for someone who might not have made the team if not for injuries. Johnston didn't play a single minute in the team's qualifying matches.

"She was a tremendous player on our youth team," U.S. head coach Jill Ellis said of Johnston. "She's had a lot of experience and leadership, and she's tough as hell. Then the opportunity presented itself with the injuries we had."

The craziest part is Johnston isn't even playing her best position.

Not that the player they call "J.J." isn't a star on defense. She is. But trained as a midfielder, she played a majority of her time there at Santa Clara, and her college coach, the legendary Jerry Smith, says that's where she excels most.

"I would argue to anyone that her best position is midfield," Smith said by phone on Friday.

Johnston's offensive mentality has shown up in all three games here in Canada, as she's been unafraid to join the attack and still able to hustle back and make aggressive plays to prevent opposing chances. (Maybe part of it comes from her dad, David Johnston, who played college football as a kicker at LSU.) She headed a ball into the Nigeria net in Vancouver only to be called offside. And two of the best plays in the tournament came with Johnson racing back and diving to stop a possible goal. Fellow defender Meghan Klingenberg marvels at the younger player's decision-making.

"We're a little more hesitant," Klingenberg said. "With her, it's so well-timed."

Johnston, by her own admission, has a midfielder's mentality. "A forward-mid, maybe that's in me," she said Friday. "For 20 years I was an attacking player."

The best position of the versatile Johnston is in midfield, not defense. (Getty Images)
The best position of the versatile Johnston is in midfield, not defense. (Getty Images)

Her comfort level at all positions – she even played some forward in college – could be the solution that the U.S. needs as it heads into the knockout round with a strong defense and a so-far-suspect offense.

Perhaps by moving Johnston up the field?

Ellis may have solved her forward issues by starting Wambach alongside Tobin Heath and Alex Morgan, but the play from midfielders Carli Lloyd and Lauren Holiday hasn't been up to their usual high standard. They've been unable to attack the way they normally do, and part of it may be the need to hold down the center of the field instead of pushing the play.

Johnston, because of her ability to play both ways, could be an answer to that. (Former Rutgers coach Glenn Crooks has even suggested a 4-3-3.) It may allow the current midfielders more freedom and unclog what has been a forgettable flow for the USA. The Americans have a luxury with Solo in goal and a stalwart group of defenders, including the ageless Christie Rampone, who played on the 1999 World Cup title team. So there is some depth to work with on defense, should Ellis so choose.

The other wrinkle is Johnston's recent national team history. Smith said he was told in 2011 that his player was "on the outside looking in" by Under-20 coach Steve Swanson. The two talked about the situation and Swanson said the roster was thin at center back. Smith floated a move, Swanson went with it, and Johnston thrived. The team won the World Cup and the Santa Clara player took home the Bronze Ball. Johnston went from the brink of oblivion to crucial cog in a national team run toward a World Cup.

It could be unfolding the same way in 2015.

"How could this happen?" Smith asked. "It is amazing."

Even if Johnston remains in central defense, the story is quite something. This is a team of veterans – Wambach, Solo, Megan Rapinoe are all 29 or older – and the second-youngest player on the roster has grabbed a leadership role. And what could have been a dicey situation – pairing the more seasoned Becky Sauerbrunn with a rookie – has turned into an embarrassment of riches.

There's no reason to think the Crayola Kid won't continue to improve with each World Cup match. In an attack that's been a little too predictable, Johnston is one player who has been consistently willing to go outside the lines.

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