Julie Johnston And Meghan Klingenberg Find Fame, Spotlight

FRISCO, Texas -- An airport is an easy place to appreciate anonymity. At any given moment on any given day, hundreds of faces fade in and out of focus as people soon to be separated by hundreds of miles pass briefly through one another's orbits. We stand in line at security, queue for coffee or wait at gates, strangers to those around as they are to us.

Which makes it a place equally equipped to illustrate what it's like when people know who you are.

Julie Johnston experienced such a jolt in the San Diego airport. As she sat at the gate this past summer and waited for her flight to New York, where a parade would celebrate the United States women's national team's recent World Cup title, a young boy approached and asked if he could take a picture with her. Traveling on her own and dressed for comfort, sans team logos, there were few contextual clues to her identity. But the boy, who she guessed was 11 or 12 years old, needed no additional hints.

"That was kind of a wow because I wasn't expecting that," Johnston said of the encounter. "I think for it to be a young boy -- I think the expectation is young girls look up to you. But it was really cool [to see a boy influenced]. That's the first one I remember and will always remember."

Now I feel that I have this platform and this opportunity to give back to my community, to enrich young people's lives, do things that I haven't been able to do before. That's all pretty cool stuff.
Meghan Klingenberg

Johnston's current Instagram following, if grouped together as a single population, would be a boomtown big enough to rank as the 10th-largest city in California. There are, in other words, many people who would immediately recognize her without the reverse being true. But in that airport exchange, and all the more when it proved other than an isolated event, was a new reality that few of us experience.

"Quite frankly, it's flattering," fellow national team defender Meghan Klingenberg said of a phenomenon that she, too, experiences in surroundings that often have little to do with soccer. "But at the same time, it's completely disconcerting because I'm just me. And if I'm around my family, I'm just Meghan, and they don't treat me any differently whether I won a World Cup or we didn't win. So it's really interesting. It's hard to deal with because there is no world in which I can match the energy of somebody coming running up to you and being so excited to see you."

If 2016 is to test how the U.S. team deals with and builds upon the prosperity it earned on the field in 2015, beginning Wednesday when Olympic qualifying opens, it is worthwhile to begin the year's stories with Johnston and Klingenberg. They played important parts in drawing so much attention to the American team a year ago and are, as a result, growing accustomed to how many eyes are now on them.

No longer are two young players trying merely to establish themselves.

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Anonymous no more, defender Meghan Klingenberg has plenty of fans looking for autographs and photo opportunities.

Now they navigate what it means to be established.

"I thought that there would always be the Abby Wambachs and the Alex Morgans and the Megan Rapinoes that people knew about," Klingenberg said. "But I never thought they would ever care about a left back."

As the United States opened its 2015 schedule with friendlies in Europe, Klingenberg was among the least-capped American players in the starting lineup for the opening game against France. She was still trying to show that the left-back role she occupied with some regularity the previous year should be hers for the long term. All of which nonetheless gave her seniority on Johnston, who didn't play at all that day against France and who was at the time nearly two years removed from her lone start for the team.

It wasn't that Johnston came out of nowhere, not as former captain of the Under-20 national team, college star at Santa Clara and NWSL rookie of the year with the Chicago Red Stars, but it took an injury to another player to even get her on the roster for World Cup qualifying. There was little reason last February for most of the tens of millions of people to know who Johnston was, even though she eventually earned rave reviews starting alongside Becky Sauerbrunn in the World Cup.

"What I hadn't seen from her, until we went to the Algarve [in March], was, one, dealing with the pressure cooker and, two, her ability on the ball to make decisions," U.S. coach Jill Ellis said. "That was the piece I didn't know about. I knew as a defender she could bring it, but was she going to be comfortable enough on the ball to help us build out?

"I think she's grown in that role, and that's still something we're refining with her, in terms of decision-making on the ball, when to play long and when to play underneath."

Forget that Johnston was relatively new to the national team a year ago; she was new to being a defender, at least by the standards of world-class players. She played on the back line with distinction for the U-20 team that won a world championship and in NWSL, but this was the same person who recalled that her initial reaction when asked to play in the back was a crestfallen "dang" (we'll take her word that it wasn't anything stronger). As in, the back line was fine ... for other people. Now, few play the position better.

"It's a role that fits me and what I can bring to the team at this level," Johnston said. "I guess I would call myself a center back, which even a year ago, I think I probably wouldn't have. It's important to be a soccer player in the sense of the whole vision -- if you put me at forward, I can do it, or if you put me in midfield, I can do it."

Klingenberg is not so different in her progression. She struggled in the 2-0 loss to France that opened the schedule a year ago, a game that left open to debate whether she was the answer to the long-running question at left back. But Ellis liked her athleticism, her tenacity and her willingness, almost her need, to push forward. And now, in turn, it's difficult to imagine the American attack without Klingenberg darting forward to pull and stretch an opposing defense; that presence is all the more important in combination with Tobin Heath on a left side now without Rapinoe.

If there are people who still question her place, they do so only in mutters.

"I think with that kind of establishment doesn't come complacency," Klingenberg said. "What comes with it is an ability to take more risks. So before, I didn't feel like I could take risks because when you take risks, there is more of a chance of making mistakes. Now I feel like I'm able to take a few risks because I've earned the right to do that. Maybe I didn't have that confidence from my teammates before, but now I think that I do."

They are increasingly comfortable in their roles, and Ellis, even with young defenders like Emily Sonnett and Jaelene Hinkle joining the team, has every reason to be comfortable with them.

For Klingenberg, the equivalent of Johnston's airport encounter came in Winnipeg during the group stage of the World Cup. In what she insists is only preparation, not superstition, her day-of-game routine includes escaping the hotel for a few moments and finding a place to sit on the grass or under the sun and work her way through Sudoku puzzles. Even for an alum of North Carolina, the best professional leagues in Europe and various U.S. youth national teams, finding anonymity had never been a problem. But prior to the second group game against Sweden, a trip to an outdoor area already full of Americans who flooded across the border, brought well-meaning interruption after well-meaning interruption (not that the break in routine stopped her from a goal-line clearance in the game that lingers as one of the highlights of the tournament).

AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu

Julie Johnston and the U.S. defense gave up only three goals in seven games at the World Cup.

The attention, as she said, is flattering. More than that, it can be consequential. The soccer camps Klingenberg operated near her hometown of Pittsburgh regularly attracted three or four dozen participants before the World Cup; those that followed the tournament drew triple digits. With more interest from sponsors, too, she could offer more places to kids who otherwise wouldn't be able to afford the experience and expand the camps beyond her home territory.

Having the attention of people can be useful if you have something to say.

"It's a little bit of a give and take," Klingenberg said. "Now I feel that I have this platform and this opportunity to give back to my community, to enrich young people's lives, do things that I haven't been able to do before. That's all pretty cool stuff."

Morgan recalled Klingenberg saying something a few months after the World Cup about how different so many things were in its aftermath. In truth, the title Morgan so highly coveted didn't necessarily alter the everyday experience of someone who was already one of the highest-profile female athletes in the country. It has been several years since Morgan walked through any airports unrecognized. At a time when there have never been more ways for athletes and fans to interact, it isn't just two or three players in the spotlight after something like winning the World Cup.

"That's something different," Morgan said. "And I feel like it's finally deserving for these players who play in the defensive positions to get that recognition and to get that appreciation. It's really great to see that for Meghan and Julie. And I hope they get a lot of opportunities to do fun things off the field because that's the fun and excitement, when you have some down time, is being invited to these events and opportunities where you're able to take your husband, your boyfriend, your family to events or award shows. Things that you are able to involve your family in, when you feel like they've supported you and done so much and sacrificed.

"It kind of comes full circle."

As she arrived in Texas for Olympic qualifying, Johnston saw the finished product of a Nike commercial for which she is the focus. Within the ad, footage of her on soccer fields as a young girl is accompanied by an adult voice encouraging her with the same fervor as those amplified tens of thousands of times in World Cup stadiums across Canada. It is her mom's voice. The same voice that broke with tears when Johnston spoke with her mom after the latter watched the commercial for the first time.

A new world awaits, one in which anonymity is difficult to find.

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