Aged 26, Julie Ertz already knows what it is like to win a World Cup. The defensive midfielder, the second-youngest member of the US squad in 2015, can talk about the joy of winning the biggest prize in women’s soccer, of how onerous a month-long tournament can be and how becoming a world champion “makes you hungry for more.”
This summer she will aim to help her country to a successful defense of the title won four years ago though, she admits, being considered one of the veterans in Jill Ellis’ squad, now that stalwarts like Abby Wambach, Hope Solo and Christie Pearce have since departed, is “weird.”
After a period of adjustment, the low point coming in a quarterfinal defeat by Sweden at the Rio Olympics, US preparations have fallen into place over the last 12 months. The team went through 2018 unbeaten – 17 wins and two draws cementing its position at the top of the world rankings and Ellis’ squad are favorites for what would be a fourth title for the US.
“It’s going to be such an amazing tournament,” Ertz tells CNN Sport. “I can’t even pick one [favorite]. There are going to be so many great teams and so many great games.”
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The summer’s World Cup, which begins June 7, is the biggest major all-female sporting event to be held since the Me Too movement swept across the globe. The goalposts have already moved, Ertz says. In her seven years in the international set-up, much has change in the women’s game. It is respected more, she says, while fans are more numerous and sponsors slightly easier to come by.
“The growth and empowerment of women in general has shifted in our culture and, on top of that, the respect that has been continued to women’s sport in general,” says the Chicago Red Stars player.
“Every World Cup I feel the fan base and the viewers have increased. The empowerment of women, together and collectively, is a powerful thing. We just want to prove what women’s soccer is – how much we’re growing it, how much it continues to grow. We go into every game like that.
“Women’s sport in general, all countries and federations, want to do that. Individually, each girl wants to prove that. It’s important to us.”
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Going viral in a ‘crazy’ year
It has been quite the 12 months for Ertz. On January 21, 2018, while she was preparing to take on Denmark in San Diego, her husband, Zach, was nearly 2,700 miles away in Philadelphia preparing for a place in Super Bowl LII.
Once her match had finished, Ertz asked for the result of the Philadelphia Eagles’ match and tearfully celebrated on learning her husband would be competing in his sport’s biggest spectacle. A clip of the moment went viral and has been viewed over a million times on YouTube alone.
Ever since, the pair have been described in many a headline as sport’s power couple. It is a moniker Ertz is happy with.
“It’s sweet and endearing, for sure,” she says. “Zach and I work really hard so if anyone supports us as individuals or collectively as athletes we’re grateful. It was a crazy and a whirlwind of a year, but we’re thankful for it as well.”
Zach went on to score in the Super Bowl as the Eagles beat the New England Patriots in 2018, but there are challenges, of course, to being a high-achieving sporting couple, especially when one plays for a team in Chicago and the other is based in Philadelphia.
“We laugh that we have a relationship with our phones,” says Ertz of the couple’s schedule.
“We FaceTime, text. He understands and supports me, and we just try to make the most of the time we have together.”
Another test comes when two ultra competitive people challenge each other to a game of chess or cards. The pair keep a record of results in a book so there is evidence when scores are disputed.
“Sometimes you have to step back and cool off a bit,” Ertz jokes.
There are plenty of positives, Ertz stresses, in negotiating life with a partner who is also playing sport at the highest level.
“I’ve learned a lot from Zach and I think he’d say the same for me,” she says.
“He’s very routine and detailed, which has helped me push myself and assess where I’m at and where I want to be. He’s very driven and I love that about him.
“I think he says he’s learned about being positive. My attitude is a bit more positive, which I think is important, especially in terms of the highs and lows of sport. I could go on and on – training together has been the best because we support each other. All the stuff you have to do as an athlete we do together.”
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Faith helps keep perspective
Helping the couple, who met at college, through the highs and lows of their sporting careers is their faith. It has, says Ertz, been a “big shift in our lives.”
“Our relationship with Jesus really did change our life and our view,” says Ertz, who with her husband started the Ertz Family Foundation last summer to help young children in Haiti, Philadelphia and the Bay Area in California.
“A lot of times Zach and I put everything on sport. It dictated our lives. It shifted our ideas that when we play for a bigger purpose we play better. We are able to see it in a different light and we’re able to enjoy it more because we’re doing it for a bigger reason than ourselves.
“We didn’t want to waste our skills or talent we were given. Going through your career, highs and lows, it helped us see and enjoy it a lot more.”
While the foundation is a long-term project with plans for expansion in the US and world wide, Ertz’s immediate focus will be on the SheBelieves Cup, an annual four-team international tournament currently being held in the US, and the World Cup in France.
Ertz missed last year’s SheBelieves Cup, which the US won, with a knee injury but is confident ahead of the round-robin tournament against England, Brazil and 2011 World Cup winners Japan.
In January, the team’s unbeaten record ended with a 1-0 defeat to France but overseas trips, adapting to time zone changes, and even defeats are valuable preparation.
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“It was obviously really exciting for us to have that record last year,” says Ertz. “I don’t think there’s added pressure but it’s definitely a confidence builder.”
The US plays its first SheBelieves match on February 28 against Japan at 19:00 ET in Pennsylvania.