Julie Ertz's consistency helps U.S. women's roster take shape

NEW ORLEANS -- Midway through the second half of Thursday's game against South Korea, Julie Ertz found herself the filling in the soccer equivalent of a po' boy sandwich. The ball at her feet near midfield, she absorbed a shoulder charge from one opponent at almost the precise instant another slid in with a challenge that caught more of Ertz than the ball.

Hit high and low, she crumpled to the ground with a grunt of pain that was audible in the highest reaches of a stadium admittedly empty enough to boost the acoustics. She stayed down for a few moments, making sure everything was still in good working order. Satisfied that she was intact, she climbed back to her feet and gingerly started anew.

Tired after more than an hour of throwing her body around an unforgiving turf field, and tired after completing the NWSL season, this was still not the time to rest. So with a goal of her own already in hand, and the game mostly in hand, she got back to business.

If the U.S. women's national team's last trip to New Orleans was about Abby Wambach and celebrating the past, something any New Year's Eve proves this city does well, this trip was about how Ertz spent her evening at the Superdome. There wasn't a mic drop at the end of the night, a la Wambach, just an ice pack on Ertz's ankle.

A 3-1 win on the night aside, this was about working toward future celebrations.

As Megan Rapinoe said a day earlier, the U.S. national team over the past year has unearthed just about every new player it is likely to find in advance of the 2019 World Cup. The roster isn't set, playing time certainly isn't determined, but the question as 2018 approaches isn't so much who will make up the team as how will they fit together on the field. And Thursday, as she has for months now, Ertz made a strong case that it fits together best with her in a defensive midfield role.

"I think she's owning the role," U.S. coach Jill Ellis said. '"I still think there's steps to be made, which is the exciting part. I still think there is growth in the position, which I think she would agree with. But she's very comfortable in there. She obviously wins a lot of balls for us."

The opening goal was the highlight of the night for Ertz. No stranger to scoring with her head on set pieces, she had to do some work to burnish that reputation. With Rapinoe's corner kick in the 24th minute coming in low and hard at the near post, Ertz managed to drop her body even lower, diving forward and redirecting the ball back across goal and beyond the keeper.

It was a long way to go for a header, but she said she was committed -- which reveals a lot about someone who might occasionally be wrong on the field but is rarely hesitant.

"It was kind of hard to read; it's pretty bright out there," Ertz said. "Once I already chose that I was going to hit it with my head, I kind of had to go for it or I wasn't going to get anything on it."

Ertz almost helped put the U.S. on the scoreboard inside of 10 minutes. Roaming free in midfield she shouldered a Korean player off the ball near midfield and took off into the open field in front of her. She then found Rapinoe, who in turn played in Alex Morgan for a shot that was saved out for a corner.

Ertz also had a role in the second U.S. goal. Hustling to keep a ball in play at the end line, Kelley O'Hara set up Morgan for a beautiful goal off a soft first touch and smooth pivot and shot. Ertz was the one who collected the ball high in the midfield and changed the point of attack, setting up Mallory Pugh and O'Hara on the right side.

Ertz threw her body into challenges at every available opportunity, but she also showed composure and touch on her distribution on a night that saw the U.S. women grow into possession and control of the game.

"She fills that 6 role perfectly," U.S. captain Becky Sauerbrunn said. "What we want out of it is someone that can be a change of point person, a pivot player, and someone who can break up plays and instill a physicality. She's got that in spades. With her technique, her strength, her vision with how she can connect passes, she's an excellent fit as a 6."

The point is not that Ertz was the most influential player on the field or played a perfect game. The corner kick that produced the opening goal? It came only after she put too much on a cross with runners in the box, aided when South Korea played the ball out for the corner.

Neither Ertz nor anyone else in the midfield could close down South Korea's Han Chaerin when she gathered a ball in open space in first-half stoppage time. Allowed room to charge, Chaerin spun a retreating Abby Dahlkemper around and got off a blast that looked nothing like that of someone in her international debut as it sailed past keeper Alyssa Naeher to cut the deficit to 2-1 at halftime. Rapinoe's penalty kick in the second half closed the scoring.

I think she's owning the role. I still think there's steps to be made ... but she's very comfortable in there. She obviously wins a lot of balls for us.
U.S. coach Jill Ellis on Julie Ertz as defensive midfielder

But imperfection is now the purpose of these games. Not to audition for the roster but to gain experience with it. Dahlkemper, for example, is barely into double-digit caps. Ertz has more than 50 and a World Cup title, but almost none of those came in the role she now occupies.

"We went into a World Cup with players with like 300-something caps," Ellis said of the 2015 team. "That's the priority for me now, is just our players taking things away that they're going to be able to apply down the line."

That is true across the board. Early in the first half, O'Hara and Pugh -- who was forced to the sideline because of a hamstring injury late in the first half -- crossed signals on a foray down the right side that fizzled. They could be seen talking and gesturing for a time afterward, then again during a break in play a couple of minutes later. It was not the heated look of an argument, just two people talking through things under game conditions.

The most important thing the U.S. women must do next year is qualify for the World Cup. But the second-most important thing is to form those connections.

No matter how many minutes Ertz played in the midfield for Santa Clara in college or the Chicago Red Stars in the NWSL, she needs a feel for the rhythms of those around her on the national team.

"Familiarity is huge," Ertz said. "Connection is huge in the game. The more you play with somebody the more you're going to have that relationship of knowing their runs or tendencies.

"We're coming to this funnel, coming off of 2017 with a big [player] pool. And now the closer and closer you get, you kind of funnel in and get those connections more and learn each other."

Each game makes it seem more like Ertz isn't just an option in the No. 6. She's the best option.

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