World Cup: Can Julie Ertz be the player she was for USWNT?

Julie Ertz is back. Fans of the U.S. women’s national team have been hoping to hear those words for more than a year, but she is — as of two substitute appearances for the team — only back for the USWNT in the most factual and implication-free sense of those words.

Angel City FC has signed Ertz to a one-year contract, which gives her the opportunity to prove she deserves a spot on the World Cup squad. She’s appeared three times since signing, and has the chance to suit up for at least six more games via the NWSL regular season and NWSL Challenge Cup before USWNT coach Vlatko Andonovski is expected to announce his World Cup roster, roughly a month before the tournament starts in late July.

Ertz had barely recovered from an MCL injury in time for the Olympics in 2021, and then sat out the rest of the NWSL season after playing every game in that tournament in Tokyo for the USWNT. She sat out the 2022 season due to pregnancy, having her first child in August, and then took her time deciding whether she wanted to return to the league, opting not to sign for any club ahead of preseason.

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In April’s final international break before Andonovski will select his World Cup roster, Ertz took the field against the Republic of Ireland — it had been 611 days since she last played for the USWNT. She looked a tiny bit off the pace, but clearly fit enough to be playing professional soccer. It remains to be seen whether she will ever be all-caps, shouted from the rooftops BACK, as in, close to the best version of herself: the best ball-winning midfielder on the planet.

Ertz’s brief USWNT return cameo in April made it easy to dream about her getting back to her peak quickly. Ireland already looked defeated by the time she came on and were defending deep to keep things respectable, giving Ertz plenty of favorable opportunities to play long passes and pick up loose balls. The second game, in which Ertz played twice as many minutes, was a bit more of a reality check. A much more ambitious and confident Ireland threatened regularly on the counter, exposing Ertz’s expected lack of match sharpness.

This has led into an early spell with Angel City that’s met expectations in both positive and negative ways. Her defensive presence has allowed club midfield teammates Dani Weatherholt and Savannah McCaskill to do more pressing and take more risks in attack, without worrying about what might happen if the ball gets behind them.

But Angel City has been inconsistent, and failed to win (two losses, one draw) in Ertz’s appearances thus far. After five total appearances for club and country since her return, we’re still pretty far from a conclusion on how far away Ertz is from her best, and whether it’s feasible for her to get close to her best by the World Cup.

Ertz won 50% of her duels (12/24) and had seven interceptions across 80 minutes in her two USWNT games, and had four interceptions in her Angel City debut, according to WyScout. These are pretty standard defensive midfielder numbers. They’re nothing to be concerned about, but they are way off peak for Ertz, who doubles up those duels-won and interceptions numbers in her most prolific ball-winning performances.

She was much more active in her two most recent club appearances, winning 10 interceptions apiece against the Portland Thorns on April 29 and the Washington Spirit on May 13, but only won 40% of her duels in those games (17/42). In the 2019 NWSL season, Ertz averaged 7.27 interceptions per 90 minutes and won 56.4% of her duels.

Ahead of the USWNT’s most recent friendlies, Andonovski provided a blunt assessment of Ertz’s skills relative to the other players in the pool with whom she’s competing for a roster spot. “If somebody’s 80% or 90% is still better than somebody else’s best, then too bad,” Andonovski told media, referring to Ertz’s chances of making the World Cup squad.

If this sounds disrespectful to some of the players who are fully fit and playing their best, well… it’s actually a much more harsh assessment of those players than it sounds on the surface. We don’t even know if Ertz can be 80% of her best yet. Andonovski is hypothesizing she can get there by the World Cup. He’s not just saying he’d rather have 80% of Ertz than 100% of another player — rather, he’d prefer the chance of Ertz at 80%.

Whether this is more an indictment on Andonovski as a coach or the current skill level of the player pool is up for debate, but the only reason a player like Ertz — who didn’t go through an NWSL preseason — is even being considered is that the USWNT has failed to find a way to replace her. There is not a backup Ertz in the player pool, and Andonovski has yet to find a suitable solution for playing without one, either.

The presence of Peak Ertz is an incredible luxury that allows her teams all kinds of creativity and tactical flexibility. With the midfielder in her prime, Andonovski could put all of his focus on how his team should attack because he didn’t really need to account for what happened when the USWNT lost the ball. He had one player who took care of that problem on her own.

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How Julie Ertz makes a team better

Angel City defender Ali Riley explains how Julie Ertz has contributed to Angel City FC so far this season.

Since Ertz went on hiatus, Andonovski has shuffled through Andi Sullivan, Samantha Coffey, Jaelin Howell, Lindsey Horan, Taylor Kornieck, and Emily Sonnett in the defensive midfield role, with the latter three used to playing in box-to-box midfield and center-back roles. None of them have been able to play the single-pivot defensive midfielder role to Andonovski’s satisfaction, but it’s not a slight on anyone in the pool to say they’re unable to be a one-player counterattack eraser in the vein of Ertz at her best. You can count on one hand all the players in the history of the game who did that for their teams.

Trying to find a “Julie Ertz replacement” is a futile endeavor and, without her, the USWNT has failed to find the right balance between solidity in the defensive midfield space and ambition going forward. Relative to the best versions of the team with Ertz in the middle, they’ve either been too vulnerable on the counter, or have lacked dynamic threats going forward over the last couple of years.

After the USWNT’s string of three consecutive losses to England, Spain and Germany in 2022, Andonovski appeared to be pushed into changing shape from the team’s long-running 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1, which has Horan starting deeper alongside Sullivan. This added player in the defensive midfield gives the back line more passing options in build-up play and reduces risk when turnovers occur.

But this shift also means Horan is no longer able to be a goal threat: She scored 16 non-penalty goals from 2019-2021, but has just one so far in 2022-23. Playing Kornieck in that role has a similar effect, moving a great goal-scoring midfielder further away from goal. And generally, regardless of whoever occupies those roles, playing with a double pivot instead of a single defensive midfielder generally results in the team having one fewer runner into the box. A healthy and in-form Ertz would solve all of these problems.

It will be an incredible story — and a great accomplishment for Ertz — if she becomes the team’s defensive lynchpin again. The problem is that we don’t yet have any indication of how quickly she’s capable of doing that. It would be silly to doubt the capabilities of someone as proven as she is in the sport, but there’s no way of knowing if one-third of an NWSL season will give her the requisite opportunity to get back to her best. Three games into her Angel City career, it doesn’t feel like we’re any closer to an answer.

If she does manage it, the USWNT will reap the rewards of having Ertz back at her best. If she doesn’t, Andonovski’s lasting legacy may be that he could never figure out what a successful USWNT looked like without her.