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2023 Women's World Cup

‘Flawless’ Girma, steady Ertz debut as USWNT center-back pairing to open 2023 World Cup

U.S. women's national team defender Naomi Girma runs down a loose ball as Vietnam forward Huynh Nhu trails.
(Photo Copyright Jenna Watson-USA TODAY Sports)

Julie Ertz was supposed to be the answer to the United States women’s national team’s midfield issues when she announced her surprising return to play in March after an 18-month absence. On Saturday, in the team’s 2023 World Cup opener, she lined up at center back as an answer to a new dilemma that has since popped up.

“We had a conversation with Julie before we even tried it,” U.S. head coach Vlatko Andonovski said after the team’s 3-0 victory over Vietnam. “[We] did a lot of work before we even got in camp in terms of videos, analysis on both sides. We were helping her out, but also she wanted to get adjusted and acclimated as soon as possible. I think today it showed how good she can be on the back line in possession and out of possession, so I’m glad that we made that decision and I know that the back line is just going to get better and better going forward.”

Ertz last played center back in the opening match of the 2019 World Cup, when Becky Sauerbrunn dealt with a minor injury. This time, Ertz’s place in the position feels more fixed. Sauerbrunn is watching the tournament from home after reaggravating a foot injury in June, a setback that cost the U.S. captain a shot at a fourth World Cup.

Sauerbrunn had mostly paired with Alana Cook at center back over the past year. Sauerbrunn, Cook and Naomi Girma were the only three center backs consistently rotated into the lineup during that time. Thus, once Sauerbrunn was hurt, it appeared that Cook and Girma would be the combination to guide the U.S. throughout the World Cup.

Upon naming his World Cup roster in late June, however, Andonovski revealed that he was considering Ertz for the position.

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