Julie Ertz ready to build on award-winning year for U.S. women's national team
MANHATTAN BEACH, Calif. -- As a New England Patriots fan, Alyssa Naeher has free reign to taunt anyone sweating out the NFL playoffs in support of a team that hasn't won five Super Bowl titles this century. And as Julie Ertz's roommate this month at training camp for the U.S. women's national team, the goalkeeper availed herself of that privilege while Ertz watched the playoff game between the Philadelphia Eagles and Atlanta Falcons.
"Was I around her?" Naeher said. "I was heckling her."
Naeher was joking. Mostly. Much as she might enjoy giving a friend a hard time, no one on the world's top-ranked women's soccer team gets in the way of Ertz rooting for the Eagles. And rooting, in particular, for the guy with the same name across the back of his No. 86 jersey, husband Zach. It is no wiser to get between her and the Eagles than her and a soccer ball.
"Rightfully so, she's pretty invested in it," Naeher said.
But Julie Ertz won't be watching when the Eagles take the field Sunday. And Naeher's voice will need to carry farther if she wants to heckle her teammate, although the goalkeeper will be busy enough directing her defensive midfielder and the rest of the team's defensive effort. The NFC Championship Game between the Eagles and Vikings is scheduled to kick off at 3:40 p.m. local time in California. Less than an hour later, in the San Diego stadium recently vacated by the Chargers, the U.S. women kick off against Denmark in the team's opening game of 2018.
It will be the biggest game of Zach's life, a chance to reach the Super Bowl. A starter for the 2015 World Cup winner, Julie already has lived out an experience like that. But while her game against Denmark is merely a friendly, it will be the first since she was named 2017 U.S. Soccer Female Player of the Year and her first chance to show last year was only a prelude.
"It's really a cool opportunity, in the sense that we're both doing what we love at the same time," Julie said. "Of course, we wish we could watch each other. I don't think it's ever matched up quite like this on the timing, and with such an amazing playoff opportunity for him. But at the same time, we know we're both going to be focusing on our games."
We're both doing what we love at the same time.Julie Ertz, whose U.S. Soccer game Sunday is at the same time as husband Zach Ertz's NFC Championship Game
Before all of that, however, they will FaceTime. It's the normal routine when they are separated on game day, soccer or football. And given that he plays in Philadelphia and she is either traveling with the national team or playing for the NWSL's Chicago Red Stars, there are a lot of mornings that require online meetings. They probably won't talk much about the dueling games this Sunday, the conversation more likely to focus on the mundane "typical husband and wife stuff," as Julie put it. They'll continue the communication through text messages, "until the last possible second of warm-ups," said Zach, a tight end who was named to his first Pro Bowl this season.
Then the whistle blows. Two whistles, in this case.
Zach joked that Julie pondered asking her dad to hold up a sign in the stands with updates on the score of the football game, but Sunday will be the rare instance in which neither is able to watch the other. More often, the performance becomes further fuel for conversation. Her football background was watching with her family when she was growing up. His soccer education involved, and indeed still involves, playing the FIFA video game series from Electronic Arts. But good luck finding a coach in either sport who better understands the other's performance.
"I think after a game, it's pretty clear to me how he's going to feel," Julie said. "We're both extremely competitive, so if it's not a win, it's very clear that it's not going to be an easy feeling after the game. At the same time, it's really cool, because whether it's a good performance or a performance we thought we could have done better from, we try to learn from it.
"It's fun to talk athlete to athlete. Even though we do play different sports, that drive and the love and passion we have for the game is very similar. It makes conversation after [games] fun and eye-opening. At a time when you're, you know, venting, it's nice to have someone there who can be that positive spark and keep you going."
It was during a conversation with Zach over the winter, once the soccer calendar finally afforded her the time to stop and take a deep breath after 12 appearances for the national team and 22 more for the Red Stars (not to mention a March wedding), that the full weight of 2017 washed over her. A year that began with, if not uncertainty about her future as a part of the national team then at least uncertainty as to where she fit, ended with the greatest domestic individual honor.
"It's an incredible accomplishment, especially [when] she faced a lot of adversity early in the year," Zach said of the U.S. Soccer award. "She wasn't playing probably as much as she wanted to. She just kept fighting and kept fighting for her spot. Eventually they kept starting her."
Although she was a standout in a variety of positions at Santa Clara, captain of an under-20 national team and an immediate success in the NWSL, Julie rose to mainstream attention as a center back in the 2015 World Cup. A last-minute addition to the team, she nonetheless started and played every minute in the World Cup, made FIFA's all-tournament team and won the kind of following that gives her more than half a million Instagram followers (nearly twice as many as Zach, if anyone is counting -- and a couple that gets competitive over who puts the most puzzle pieces together probably is counting).
Turned loose on a soccer field, Julie is a whirlwind of energy and aggression.
"She's got that hard-nosed defender's mentality," Naeher said. "And even when she's in the midfield she still brings that same mentality of getting stuck in on tackles, being aggressive, and that bite is contagious. You see somebody like that getting into tackles and organizing things -- it gives you that extra edge to want to do the same."
But by the beginning of last year she no longer appeared guaranteed a starting spot in the back line, first when the United States experimented with three defenders instead of four and later when Abby Dahlkemper emerged as a promising partner for co-captain Becky Sauerbrunn. Asked if Julie had something to prove to her last year, U.S. coach Jill Ellis gave a qualified answer.
"In terms of being the fierce warrior and competitor, that part of it, no," Ellis explained. "I've never [questioned that]. ... I think JJ has grown a lot. She has become more open and confident -- a lot of these players, they want to be perfect, and if they're not perfect it can kind of rattle them. I think she's understood that, 'You know what, it might not be perfect, but if I'm getting better and I'm here, then that's what is important.'"
What Ellis said she needed to see was proof that the player could handle a positional change, even if the holding midfield role in which she eventually thrived was familiar from both college and the professional club. Ellis wanted to see a player who was not only a defensive presence but a player composed enough on the ball to connect passes and build the attack from deep on the field. Given the opportunity as a second-half substitute in a wild 4-3 win against Brazil played in the same stadium in San Diego in which she will play Sunday, Julie scored the winning goal and never looked back. There was more to her overall performance than the six goals she scored in the team's final eight games, most of those with her head on set pieces, but they didn't hurt.
"I really wanted to learn and enjoyed the learning process, even though it wasn't easy," Julie said. "That probably wouldn't have happened to me four or five years ago in my career. I think that's just over time, learning that piece that you have to go through a learning curve to be able to grow. You can't grow without being pushed and having obstacles thrown in your way."
Such perspective has its limits, of course, which is why for the sake of marital peace, she and Zach have taken at least a hiatus from playing gin. Generally the worse loser of the two by her own admission, a winless streak in that game brought on more grumpiness than growth. But in more meaningful matters, perhaps it is not coincidence that Sunday finds them where they are. Even separated by the width of a continent, perhaps they bring out the best in each other.
"We're really supportive of each other -- we just want each other to be safe and have fun," Zach said. "And ultimately this is such a short chapter of our life, such a short season of our life, that she can play as long as she wants, and I'm going to play as long as I want. And then eventually we'll settle down and be normal married people."
It won't happen soon. It certainly won't be a normal Sunday. But with the national team on a break after the Denmark game and NWSL preseason still a month away, she allowed that her calendar is free two weeks from Sunday. He watched her win a World Cup in front of a full stadium in Vancouver in 2015. She would be happy to do the same at the site of Super Bowl LII.
"I would love to be in Minneapolis supporting my husband," Julie said. "That would be a dream."
Some would argue Sunday is already a pretty good one.
ESPN New York Giants reporter Jordan Raanan contributed to this report.