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‘I want to be better’: Julie Ertz on her return to the USWNT

Photo copyright Valerie Terranova.

Julie Ertz is back with the U.S. women’s national team ahead of a pair of matches against the Republic of Ireland and just three months before the World Cup begins.

Ertz last played competitively at the Tokyo Olympics in August 2021 and her return comes as a surprise. Exactly what shape she is, and what head coach Vlatko Andonovski’s plan is for her, are among the myriad of questions.

On Tuesday, Ertz stressed that she is not satisfied with coming back and being the player that she used to be; she wants to be better.

“I’ve learned that pressure is a privilege,” Ertz said. “There’s always been pressure in any position, any time of my career. My career, I feel like hasn’t been just normal and smooth every single time because it’s about just getting better each year and I want to come back and be — I don’t even want to go back and be the player that I was because I want to be better.”

Ertz became a free agent in the National Women’s Soccer League this past offseason, but she has not been signed with a team for over a year. She gave birth to her first child in August.

Ertz stated that she was in communications with a few professional teams, and should be finalizing a contract soon. However, she decided not to comment when asked which of the 12 teams she was in contact with. She said that she was, “trying to stay focused on the games coming up, but also knowing that I need a club team.”

In regards to the decision to rejoin the national team, Ertz said: “I think clearly the love for the game is hard to step away from. Obviously, coming back from pregnancy changes things, obviously your body. So I just wanted to make sure when I was coming back that I felt like I was strong enough to be able to feel like I could be myself.”

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“I know the first few months, like I would just stare at him and be like, ‘oh my gosh, how do people come to work?” Ertz said of the decision to come back to the national team postpartum. “I think the emotions of that, and after having a baby and all your hormones and everything. So yes, of course it’s not easy.” She attributed the ability to come back to her amazing support system, and how her family and husband, Zach, have been “unbelievably supportive.”

“I’ve been so grateful to really actually enjoy this challenge because it was like I wanted to get back to myself and comfortable and be a great mom. So obviously that was my focus first and foremost.”

Ertz, 30, did not say whether she thought about retiring. Ertz attended NFL games to watch her husband, Zach, in a competitive environment, and that added fuel to the fire.

“In the back of your head, it’s hard to not have that itch, when you’re just so used to being so competitive and especially having a professional athlete as a husband,” Ertz said.

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Andonovski said last week that he personally watched Ertz train recently, with a boys team in Arizona, before recalling her to the national team. The U.S. women’s national team collective bargaining agreement requires players be called back into camp at some point postpartume should they wish to still compete, but Andonovski said that Ertz has also been recalled for competitive reasons. The U.S. has not replaced her in the past 18 months.

At her best, she was one of the best players in the world.

“I feel really good,” Ertz said Tuesday. “I have been training and making sure that my body feels physically where it needs to be. Being in this environment, I kind of know where my body was before. So, I do feel really good. And obviously getting played in is part of that as well, but I feel great.”

When probed further on the mental side of the game, Ertz explained:

“I’m in a good head space to just understand, to give myself a little bit of grace. But overall, I feel like being in this environment, the game and really the mental side has always been the hardest section, especially being with such elite players day in, day out. That almost was the one that I wanted to really focus on coming in here. Coming back, pregnant or not, five years ago you have good days and bad days, and it’s just making sure that you can control what you can control. The technical side is what you can control. The mental side I wanted to make sure that I was focused on as well.”

Although Ertz hasn’t been on the roster in a while, she hasn’t been out of contact with the coaching staff.

“I’ve been in really good conversations with Vlatko, kind of what they’ve been looking at, what they’ve been trying to do, about each game,” she said. “I know that they’ve tried a few different things in previous games and it’s been a little bit different from game to game. So, it’s been fun listening to what he sees and allowing me to ask questions. And, it’s been a fun – I wouldn’t say a challenge – it’s just a different way obviously of approach. But at the same time [it’s] the same because when it comes to a World Cup time, it’s all about details.”

Andonovski said last week that at her best, Ertz is one of the best players in the world. He also said that if a player at 80% or 90% of their best is still a better player than another at 100%, he will take the former rather than the latter to the World Cup. The goal is to win a third straight World Cup this summer, which has never been done before.

“We’re excited to have Julie back,” Andonovski said. “We know the quality of the player that she’s at and that if she comes anywhere near her best, that she will certainly help us win a World Cup.”

Andonovski insists that nothing is a given, and that Ertz needs to prove herself once again. He also noted that she needs to sign a professional contract to play over the next few months, something both player and coach made sound imminent.

Ertz spent a solid amount of time on Tuesday thanking the mothers on the team that went before her and both inspired her to do it as well as paved the path to allow for the resources that the players currently have. U.S. Soccer. The current U.S. roster features four moms.

“I feel like I have to shout out Cheyna Matthews — she’s with the [Chicago] Red Stars now — who has three boys and she is just been tremendous and walking through what she’s learned through her process and what an incredible mom she is, [and is on] the Jamaican national team,” Ertz said.” And also Kealia Watt, we’ve been training together and it’s nice to be able to have somebody there that also understands, but also pushes you and knows where you kind of want to be.”

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