For USWNT Hopeful, Julie Johnston's Emergence Is 'Coolest Thing Ever'

OTTAWA, Ontario -- When it comes to a paucity of goals, these are both the best and worst of Women's World Cup times for the United States. As the Americans prepare for a quarterfinal against China, they continue to insist in response to a steady stream of criticism from back home that they know they can play better offensively, but aren't worried that time is running out for them to do so.

All they have to do to keep advancing, they point out, is score one more goal than the opposition. And right now, that means all they have to do is score, because a back line that entered the tournament with little experience has been impenetrable.

While the U.S. would like to find some goals, it found its newest star in preventing them.

Part of the group that hasn't allowed a goal in 333 minutes, Julie Johnston has introduced herself to a larger audience in this World Cup the same way Lauren Holiday, Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe did at the other end of the field in recent major tournaments.

For those previously unfamiliar with the player who starred at Santa Clara University and will soon return to her second season with the Chicago Red Stars in the National Women's Soccer League, watching her has been a revelation. For someone like longtime teammate Sofia Huerta, familiarity makes the experience only more profound.

"Watching her succeed and watching her just have all her dreams come true makes me really happy," Huerta said. "Honestly, that's what probably makes me the most emotional is watching her just do so well. I'm just so proud of her. I've been playing with her since I was 14, I went to Santa Clara with her and now I'm here [on the Red Stars] with her.

"I just feel like I've kind of seen her grow, and now that it's finally here for her, I think it's just the coolest thing ever."

At least the coolest thing to this point. Playing alongside her would presumably trump it.

By going to the World Cup, Johnston realized her dream. Huerta realized that her dream required giving up a place in the tournament.

The daughter of a Mexican father and American mother who grew up in Boise, Idaho, Huerta played for Mexico at both the youth and senior levels, one of many American-born players sought by the Mexican program to bolster its ranks.

In the same 2012 Under-20 World Cup in which American captain Johnston turned heads in the soccer world by winning the Bronze Ball as the tournament's third best player, no small honor for a center back, Huerta scored three times for Mexico and won a following. As recently as two years ago, she took the field for Mexico as a 20-year-old college junior in a friendly against the United States in Washington, D.C.

She would have been a part of the Mexican World Cup roster, almost certainly a key part. Instead, as the NWSL halted play during the group stage of the World Cup, she watched from afar as Mexico drew its opening game against Colombia and was then eliminated after losses to England and France.

"I don't really know how to describe it," Huerta said of watching this World Cup on television. "I have really good friends on Mexico, and I have a really soft spot for Mexico because of what they did for me and the opportunities that they gave me. So watching them play and watching them not get out of their group, it sucked. I wanted to see them be successful."

That she wasn't in Canada with Mexico was her choice, one that surprised many people. Having never played for Mexico at the senior level in anything more than a friendly, thus not yet ineligible to act on her American citizenship (not unlike Sydney Leroux when she switched from representing Canada to the United States), Huerta chose to preserve the possibility of what might be rather than settle for the security of what was. She kept her American eligibility in hopes of future opportunities with U.S. Soccer.

"I just always wanted to be the best version of myself, and I've always wanted to play for the U.S. I think those two kind of coincide," Huerta explained. "No disrespect to Mexico; I had the best experiences with them. But I want to keep getting better and challenge myself, and I want to do what everyone thinks I can't do."

That it will be a challenge is something she readily acknowledges. Then again, the same would have been said of what stood between Johnston and a starting spot in the World Cup after she was left off the initial roster for qualifying last fall. With her total caps still in single digits when the year began, Johnston went from potential reserve, at best, to defensive cornerstone alongside Becky Sauerbrunn. In so doing, she achieved a goal that came fully into focus after the 2012 Under-20 World Cup.

"When I got the Bronze Ball, I was so emotional," Johnston said of 2012. "After winning [the championship] with our team, and just what a battle that tournament was, it's what I wanted to do -- I wanted to go to the next level because I just loved it so much. I enjoyed it so much that the next level is where I wanted to be.

"I wanted to be a part of a team that could be in that World Cup environment again."

Given the failures the United States had endured over the past decade-plus in World Cups of all age classifications, the success of that U-20 team under the direction of current senior team assistant and University of Virginia coach Steve Swanson stands out in sharp relief. Bludgeoned by Germany in the group phase, the team improved and played its best game to beat the Germans in a rematch in the finals. Johnston anchored a defense that in front of more than 31,000 fans in Tokyo contained Dzsenifer Maroszan, Melanie Leupolz, Lena Lotzen and other rising talents who have contributed to the German juggernaut in Canada this month.

"Just watching her really control that youth tournament and her presence out there and her as a leader, it was just inspiring," five-time World Cup participant Christie Rampone said recently of what inspired her to write the young player -- her successor -- what is now a well-documented letter of encouragement.

The two years that followed might have offered frustration in the moment, her struggle to make an impression on the senior level capped by the qualifying roster she made only at the last minute as an injury replacement, but in hindsight it was only a momentary delay. As with the highlight that to this point defines her World Cup, losing half a step to Nigeria's Asisat Oshoala in a dead sprint from midfield before recovering to perfectly time a tackle in the box that deflected her opponent's shot, she rose to the challenge.

"Julie has always been so much better than anyone she's been around," Huerta said. "I'm not surprised how well she's doing. Of course she's improved a bunch; I would be lying if I said she hasn't. She looks mature when she's playing. She makes great decisions. She looks confident. But she's kind of always been that way.

"I would say the biggest difference between Santa Clara and now is probably just her speed of play. You have to be able to make decisions quick, and they have to be smart and they have to be right if you're going to playing at that level, if you're going to be starting at that level and if you're going to be successful at that level."

Johnston has checked all three of those boxes during this Women's World Cup.

While it comes with less fanfare than anything that happens in Canada, Huerta has quietly made a statement of her own this spring and summer. The rookie forward tied for the NWSL lead with six goals in eight games. One month after Press won the same award, Huerta was named the league's player of the month for May.

Huerta isn't asked to carry her NWSL team the same way she was in college, particularly after Johnston departed. She is asked to hold up the ball and score goals. And the better she does that, the more likely the national program will take notice.

This is the summer Johnston became an American soccer star. It is the summer she lived out a dream. And it's the summer Huerta began pursuing one.