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Kassouf: The aura of Ertz arrives at Angel City

Julie Ertz immediately changed how how Angel City plays. Now, will it translate to victories in Los Angeles?

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Sitting at the microphone in the press room adjacent to BMO Stadium’s bustling field-level club, Angel City FC captain Ali Riley called Sunday night’s match a turning point for the team.

Angel City had just lost, 2-0 on home grounds in Los Angeles to aspiring rival San Diego Wave FC, so it could have been seen as a curious statement. As is so often the case in soccer, however, the final score did not tell the full story.

“I think we used our luck for the season tonight,” Wave coach Casey Stoney said moments earlier.

Angel City feels like it is at an inflection point because of one, potentially trajectory-changing addition to the roster: midfielder Julie Ertz. In her first National Women’s Soccer League match in 707 days, Ertz made her club debut, playing 72 minutes as the team’s defensive midfielder. Her physical play was good but not amazing by her standards — to be expected after such a long layoff.

What Ertz uniquely brings to any team is an aura, a belief, an edge. She is the type of singular talent that cannot be replaced, cannot be replicated, and cannot be ignored. Like Nike in Greek mythology, Ertz personifies winning.

It is why, after nearly two years away from the U.S. women’s national team, the mere announcement of her return to play shifted the question from, ‘Is she retiring?’ to, ‘Will she start at the World Cup?’ Whether she would make the roster was a ship that had already sailed.

Ertz signed with Angel City one week prior to Sunday and arrived in LA in time for only two training sessions with the full team. Still, she was an obvious starter for head coach Freya Coombe, an instant upgrade to an Angel City midfield that has lacked some of the tenacity to dictate play over full matches.

“She had a really good presence on the ball,” Coombe said of Ertz afterward. “I felt like she looked calm under pressure a lot, which translated to the rest of the team. I felt like they were a lot calmer on the ball; even when pressed she was able to deal with pressure really well and just play out of it calmly. I think having her leadership in the center to direct is huge for us.”

Angel City outshot its rival 16-7 on the day, but the home side managed to put only two shots on target. The home team struck the right balance of pressure in a 4-4-2 defensive shape, with attacking midfielder Savannah McCaskill pushing higher to deny entry passes to Ertz’s counterpart for San Diego, defensive midfielder Danielle Colaprico.

Ertz then helped take away the long ball on which the Wave so often rely, winning aerial challenges — and, yes, committing some fouls in the process — from the opening minutes. (It helped that 6-foot-1 Taylor Kornieck missed the match due to injury.)

Three minutes into the match, Ertz attempted a dangerous, cross-field switch of the ball that was poorly hit and allowed San Diego to counter. A few minutes later, she found the game with a simple ball to break pressure, and by the 20th minute, her key pass to spring 18-year-old forward Alyssa Thompson into the box represented one of Angel City’s best, early opportunities. Ertz played a similar ball into the box for Katie Johnson early in the second half. Then, a few minutes later, Ertz broke pressure and pinged a big, diagonal ball toward Riley, who was streaking up the right side. That pass found its mark.

“I do think we’re able to play a different style because we have her there,” Riley said.

Riley twice referenced Ertz’s confidence in the following moments as she described how the veteran midfielder changes the entire team’s approach. With Ertz, Angel City can push higher up the field. Specifically, McCaskill can play closer to goal to combine with the forward line, rather than dropping deep to receive the ball, as she has frustratingly had to do in the Before Ertz Times.

If all of this sounds familiar, it is because it is.

The United States women’s national team struggled with the concept of replacing Ertz in the 19 months she was gone. Even before that layoff, which included Ertz giving birth to her first child in August 2022, U.S. coach Vlatko Andonovski and staff showed how important Ertz is to the U.S. at the Tokyo Olympics in August 2021.

Rewind those 707 days, to Ertz’s previous NWSL match, and she was subbed off the field for the Chicago Red Stars 29 minutes into a season-opening, 5-0 thrashing away to the Portland Thorns. She sprained her MCL early in the match, and U.S. fans held their collective breath ahead of the Olympics.

Ertz rushed back and did not play in any official matches before the tournament. Forty-five minutes into what was eventually a 3-0 loss to Sweden to open those Olympics, it was clear that the alternative midfield solution was not working, so Ertz came into the match off the bench. She did not leave the field for the rest of the tournament, heavily wrapped knee, and all.

Now, she is back with the U.S. again. Suddenly and ostensibly, there is an answer for all the concerns about the U.S.’ midfield presence against the world’s top teams. Even among a team so filled with injuries, including the recent loss of star forward Mallory Swanson to a torn patella tendon, the addition of Ertz significantly increases the reality of a possible U.S. three-peat.

Such confidence makes many assumptions about the Ertz of today and whether she is the same player — or better, as she recently stated was her goal — she was in the recent past, which was among the world’s best. It also might be undue pressure for one player. Pressure is a privilege, as Ertz recently said while reciting a cliché sports mantra.

“I’ve just trusted the process of getting back,” Ertz said after Sunday’s match. “Through the struggles and the fun times of it as well I’ve kind of just learned to go step by step and trust it, and it’s been an enjoyable ride.”

Sunday was the first of a dozen possible games for Ertz to play with Angel City prior to the U.S. team convening for its pre-World Cup camp. She only signed a one-year contract, and it is obvious even if implicit that the Ertz-Angel City relationship is a one of great convenience. Ertz needs a club to prepare for the World Cup; Angel City needs help in midfield.

Sunday was an imperfect start with an unfortunate ending for Angel City, but the impact is already clear: things have changed in LA.


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Eye-catchers: Play the kids

Sunday’s Angel City-Wave game had the nice subplot of 18-year-olds Alyssa Thompson and Jaedyn Shaw squaring off, and young talent across the NWSL continues to be an emerging trend of 2023. Chloe Ricketts, 15, came off the bench again for the Washington Spirit to make a difference in a scoreless draw with the Houston Dash on Saturday. Ricketts flashed a quick scissor move on the dribble 1-v-1 with Caprice Dydasco and nearly provided the assist to what would have been a smooth, clinical goal, but the header from Trinity Rodman (now 20, but in the ‘early’ wave of teens who made the jump) flashed just wide.

Thompson looked like the best player on the pitch for large stretches of Sunday’s game in LA. She scored 11 minutes into her NWSL debut for Angel City last month. Shaw, now in a central No. 10 role, is already the focal point of San Diego’s tactics.

Eyebrow-raisers: Red Stars unravel

We saw the high-wire act that is Chicago’s 3-4-2-1 over the course of a week. The Red Stars defeated the Kansas City Current, 4-2 on April 15 in the Challenge Cup and followed it up in regular-season play a week later with a 5-2 loss to OL Reign in Seattle.

Can this system be sustained? Chicago stuck with it throughout 2022 and looked generally solid while narrowly making the playoffs, but it always put a heavy burden on the defensive unit. Now, the Red Stars are also operating without Mallory Swanson for the foreseeable future. Head coach Chris Petrucelli has said that this system suits the Red Stars, and they will stick with it, but that will need serious re-evaluating if things don’t improve from Saturday’s performance.

Tactical trends to watch

Speaking of three-back systems, Kansas City got plenty of production from its wingbacks on Saturday. Kate Del Fava and Hailie Mace combined to set up the Current’s second goal, a rare wingback-to-wingback moment (Mace has made a diagonal run across the entire field).

Like Chicago, the Current must figure out whether they can maintain that system given the personnel they have (and don’t have). Saturday was a positive, but at home against an Orlando team and possibly galvanized by the recent firing of Matt Potter as head coach.

Surveying stadiums

The Angel City-San Diego game had an announced sellout crowd of 22,000 fans. The announced crowd in Kansas City was 9,808, and the number in Portland was 14,972.

A crowd of 7,073 in Washington, D.C., was just OK, and Gotham FC once again got hit with a terrible night of weather in New Jersey that caused a significant mid-game delay for what the team announced was a crowd of 3,200. The Reign announced 6,186 fans for the big win over Chicago.

That’s a weekend average of 10,540 fans per game.

They said that

Kansas City Current general manager Camille Ashton said the firing of Matt Potter as head coach came after the team’s three-game losing streak to start the season was “met with a lack of collaboration and partnership that we would otherwise expect from our head coach with management and ownership.”

In a Friday afternoon press conference, Ashton tried to clarify that there were not player-related issues, given the recent context of abuse allegations in the NWSL.

“This decision is not related to any player issues, is not related to the Mykiaa Minniss situation. Both the league and the PA are aware of the reasons for our decision, and there’s nothing here for the league to investigate.

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