As the sun sets early over the winter skies of Tempe, Arizona, boys in their late teens take the field for practice with Phoenix Rising FC, a top youth academy in the area that shares ties to a professional men’s team.
Their training fields sit at the site of the professional team’s old stadium tucked away with natural discretion. They are bordered to the south by the Salt River, the west by industrial buildings, the north by a mobile home park, and the east by dry, open land divided by a highway.
There is little reason for anyone to take note of what is happening there on any given weeknight. Kids come and practice soccer, they go home, and they return the next evening to do it all over again.
Early in 2023, however, there was good reason to pay attention, although few people on the planet knew it. Running around the field with these young men, there is a blonde ponytail bobbing sided to side, kept intact by blue pre-wrap.
Here, a few miles from her home, two-time World Cup champion Julie Ertz is at training.
At this point, the United States women’s national team midfielder had not played a competitive match in nearly 18 months, stepping away after the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 and giving birth to her first child a year later. Those following along wondered if Ertz would return at all and assumed almost certainly that if she did, it would not be in time for the 2023 World Cup. They had reason to believe as much.
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