Julie Ertz isn’t done yet

With a rediscovered love of the game and an intensity that never left, the 31-year-old returns to the U.S. women’s national team as it chases a third straight World Cup title.

Julie Ertz and her husband, Zach, are parents to a baby boy, Madden. (Brad Smith/USSF/Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES — In the days and weeks after she became a mother last August, Julie Ertz made peace with not playing the sport she loves. Having crafted a surpassing soccer career for one of the most dominant teams on the planet, Ertz had nothing to prove and little left unaccomplished. She didn’t know — couldn’t know — how her body would respond to childbirth, no matter how much work she poured into it. Being a mom to Madden while again becoming one of the world’s best players created a logistical tangle she was not certain she could solve.

“I had to mentally be okay with maybe 2023 for the view of a World Cup may not be a possibility,” Ertz said.

In those same moments, Ertz felt the pull — “an itch,” husband Zach said — that most great athletes feel, the same urge that made them great in the first place. She still wanted to be part of a team, to compete, to win. Even as she found contentment in the possibility of not playing in another World Cup, the desire to return in time was there, in the back of her mind.

Less than a year after having a baby and just five months after her own coach expressed public skepticism about her return, Ertz will play for the U.S. women’s national team at her third World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. Even after deciding she would attempt to return for this cycle and signing with the NWSL’s Angel City FC in April, Ertz felt so uncertain about her status that her family knew not to bring up whether she would make the U.S. roster. Now, after months of postpartum recovery and countless hours of contemplation, one of U.S. soccer’s all-time careers will continue.

“I was already always grateful to have that crest,” Ertz said one morning in May before an Angel City practice. “When you realize the possibility of never having that again, you don’t really realize — unless you choose, obviously — whatever game could have been my last to wear the crest.”

Ertz, 31, has given herself grace to make mistakes and allowed her body to return at its own pace. She also refused to use motherhood as a rationale for skipping a workout or giving less than full effort during one. “I hate pushing myself to run to where I puke,” she said. “But that’s just the reality of what you have to do.”

Over the past few months, Ertz has balanced the selflessness inherent to parenthood and the selfishness required to be an elite athlete. She has bounced between Los Angeles and Arizona while working out and practicing with her NWSL team. She has leaned on her parents and in-laws. It has not been easy, but she didn’t expect it to be.

“She really worried about whether or not she could manage this commitment,” said Jerry Smith, Ertz’s college coach at Santa Clara. “Julie doesn’t want to do something just to do it, just to put her name on something. If Julie wants to be on the World Cup team, she wants to be a difference-maker for the team to win the World Cup. She is very thoughtful and very comprehensive in her decision to do this or not.”

Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan and Crystal Dunn made the 2023 USWNT roster. The U.S. women’s soccer team is attempting to win its third consecutive World Cup. (Video: Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)

Ertz’s career had always been built on overachievement. As a sophomore at Santa Clara, she tried out for the under-20 national team. Coach Steve Swanson informed Smith she was on the outside looking in among a deep group of midfielders. Smith suggested Swanson try her at center back. At the next camp, Ertz made the team at the position she had played infrequently and grudgingly in college. Teammates voted her a captain, the United States won the U-20 World Cup, and she claimed the silver ball given to the second-best player in the tournament. “When Julie sets her mind to something,” Smith said, “look out.”

Ertz made the 2015 World Cup team only after an injury opened a roster spot, then played every minute and made the tournament all-star team as the United States secured its first World Cup title since 1999. One contested ball won and sound decision at a time, Ertz forced her way into the sport’s upper stratosphere. She became part of the backbone of the U.S. program, intense and driven and controlling everything from the midfield. She won U.S. player of the year honors in 2017 and again in 2019, when she scored her first World Cup goal as the Americans defended their title.

The four years since have challenged Ertz’s relationship with soccer and changed her life. She entered the year without professional expectations, focused on being the best mom she could be. She will end it on another World Cup roster.

“The whole journey has been remarkable,” Zach Ertz said. “It’s just amazing what the human body can do — especially someone like Julie.”

‘It wasn’t not there’

As she rose to the top of the sport, Ertz assumed motherhood would come after she finished playing. She watched peers — “superwomen,” she said — who returned after childbirth with awe and apprehension, inspired but deterred.

“Now having Madden and going home and understanding the life I didn’t see of those players, my respect skyrocketed,” Ertz said. “But I don’t think it was like, ‘I’m for sure going to be able to do this.’ If you asked me that early on in my career, I’d probably be like, ‘I’m not sure that’s even feasible.’ ”

Ertz’s pregnancy came between Olympic and World Cup cycles, but it was not planned with soccer in mind. Julie and Zach Ertz had wanted to be parents for years, and she decided it was the right time for her mentally. When she got pregnant in late 2021, Ertz took the first extended break from soccer she could remember.

“It was just a reset point that I didn’t know that I needed,” Ertz said.

In May 2021, having endured the uncertainty of the pandemic and the delay of the Olympics, Ertz suffered a Grade 3 medial collateral ligament injury, which typically requires at least 12 weeks of recovery. With the Olympics two months away, Ertz plowed through rehab in eight weeks and made the team.

Doctors placed her on a minutes limit, which lasted until Sweden handed the U.S. team a shocking and rare drubbing in its opening game. From there on, determined that her presence could make a difference, Ertz played every minute of the Olympic tournament, often in excruciating pain. With contact restricted by pandemic rules, team chemistry naturally suffered. Families couldn’t attend, and games were played in nearly empty venues. The United States struggled to a disappointing bronze.

After the Olympics, Ertz quit social media and stopped watching soccer, to the point that Zach would ask her before big matches, “Are you sure you don’t want to put this game on?” The joy she had always felt playing soccer had dissipated.

“Not winning the Olympics sucked,” Ertz said. “Just all of it. My body just being like, ‘Dude, you pushed me to my absolute limit.’ My knee is dragging behind me. … My body was telling me it’s ready to breathe for a little bit. It’s sad to say because I love it so much. I don’t think anyone should ever play like that. I mean, what a gift it is to play a sport your whole life. For me, being away did make me fall in love with it again.”

Madden was born Aug. 11, 2022, and he became Ertz’s sole priority. During her pregnancy, Ertz worked with a specialist to strengthen her core muscles, less to prepare for playing again than to maximize her chances of a safe delivery.

“She attacked having a baby with the same intensity as she would preparing to play a soccer match,” Zach said. “She wanted to do everything she could to have a healthy baby, to have a healthy pregnancy. There’s so many unknowns involved with that. She’s such a wonderful mother, she was already preparing to do everything she could for our son.”

Living back in Arizona, she was surrounded by family for the first time since high school. She and Zach, who has made more than $60 million as an NFL tight end, were financially secure. There wasn’t an NWSL team in Arizona. Every minute spent dedicating herself to regaining her form, which would necessitate finding an NWSL team, meant a minute spent away from Madden.

Friends would sometimes ask Smith whether Ertz would return for another World Cup. He told them, “I highly doubt it.”

Ertz didn’t make her up mind, choosing to take one step at a time and evaluate. “In the back of my head,” she said, “it wasn’t not there.”

At first, Ertz did not ask herself how she could return to soccer. She focused on specific attributes — balance, muscle recovery, abdominal separation — and broke down her recovery into small goals. Cheyna Matthews, an NWSL player who has returned to the sport after giving birth three times, reached out with advice about what helped her most and when she could safely resume certain exercises. “What a sweet gesture,” Ertz said.

About six weeks after giving birth, Ertz started jogging again. Shortly thereafter, she started kicking a ball off a wall on the sport court in the backyard. Zach would look outside and think, “Man, I don’t think she’s going to be done.”

Ertz kept insisting she had not decided whether to aim for a World Cup spot while working to keep the possibility open. In January, she started playing pickup games with friends. She knew an old coach who oversaw a local under-19 boys’ team, and the coach invited her to join their training whenever she wanted.

“They’re just so fun and funny, and they’re still playing for the love of the game,” Ertz said. “It’s not like they’re in college or getting their [name, image and likeness] deals or getting paid to do it. They’re just out there to mess around with their guys. They totally embraced me, and I loved it.”

Ertz moved her workouts to a training facility that provided expertise for women coming back from pregnancy. She trained with Kealia Watt, her former teammate with the Chicago Red Stars who had also recently given birth. They bantered about motherhood as they sweated through workouts. Ertz could feel her body remembering movements and how to respond to strain. Between the pickup games with her old coach and workouts with Watt — who is also married to a football player, retired defensive lineman J.J. Watt — her path back began to feel ordained.

“It really was like, ‘Wow, what a blessing to have these people in my life at this time in my career at the timeline that came up,’ ” Ertz said.

Publicly, Ertz’s chances to return in time appeared slim. In February at the SheBelieves Cup, U.S. Coach Vlatko Andonovski told reporters “time is running out” for Ertz to rejoin the team and she would “probably not” play in the World Cup. To some, the comments sounded dismissive of a veteran who had contributed so much to the national team. Ertz took no offense and in fact agreed with Andonovski’s sentiment.

“It was reality,” she said. “I wouldn’t be like, ‘How dare you say that!’ Not at all. … The reality of it is, individually, if I wasn’t able to go in and actually legit compete and be where I wanted to be, then I didn’t deserve to be there. I know the importance of the crest. I know the importance of team camaraderie as you get closer to a tournament. Understanding my past successes with the team and individually, the reality is, if I wasn’t back to where my expectation is before I leave, then I wasn’t going to help the team.”

As far as Ertz had come, she still had not decided. The final nudge came from Zach. One Sunday afternoon, they were sitting on the couch. “He was like: ‘You’re going to do it or not because your timeline is done. Make your choice,’ ” Ertz said. They weighed the pros and cons, with Madden at the center. If she tried to play, they could always figure out how to manage the obstacles. If she didn’t, the opportunity would be lost forever.

“Ultimately, it comes down to, ‘Do you want to play soccer and try to be one of the best players in the world again?’ ” Zach said. “I wanted her to go for it because I didn’t want her to look back in 10 years with those questions of: ‘Man, if only I did this. I feel like I could have done it, but I’ll never know.’ At least this way, if it doesn’t work out, if for some reason she’s not on the team, she could retire with closure that: ‘Hey, I did everything I could. I regret nothing, and I can move on with my life.’ I felt truly if she slammed the door right there without exhausting the option, it would have led to some doubt in her mind down the road. As an athlete, there’s nothing worse than that.”

On that Sunday, Zach was in the midst of recovery from a torn ACL and MCL. Madden crawled around the floor, about six months old and blissfully oblivious of his parents, the World Cup and Super Bowl champions on the couch. They reflected on the joy Madden had brought them, the choices each had made to keep playing and the inevitable choice they would both face someday — the finality every athlete, somewhere deep in the back of their mind, knows will come and dreads. It was a profound, beautiful moment between two athletes who had reached the top and, in pursuit of the next triumph, had never paused to look down.

“I just don’t think we ever had time to talk about it,” Ertz said. “It was a pivotal moment not just in my decision to play but in our marriage. It was like, ‘I don’t think we’ve patted ourselves on the back enough.’ ”

Ertz, the player with an arsenal of trophies and triple-digit national team appearances, the nerve center of World Cup champions and Olympic teams, felt like a rookie. She had surprised the soccer world by rejoining the U.S. women for a pair of friendlies in April. She snapped a photograph of the jersey hanging in her locker. She felt tears form in her eyes and told herself, “Dude, you need to play a game.” On the pitch, a grin kept spreading across her face.

“I jokingly say it was the first time I played smiling,” Ertz said weeks later, chatting at a picnic table at Angel City’s practice facility.

“That’s so nice,” said an Angel City official who was sitting nearby.

“No, I don’t like it,” Ertz said. “… Not that I need to have a mean face, but I like it differently. It was weird to have my cheeks hurt more than my legs after the game.”

Three days later, Ertz felt her typical intensity return, but at times she still played with a smile on her face. She openly says she plans not to return to form but to be better than ever. In her second Angel City game, on a set piece during the 79th minute, Ertz streaked toward the net and headed a cross into a sliver of open space between Portland’s goalkeeper and the near post, breaking a 2-2 tie. Ertz pumped her fist, smiled wide, sprinted and hugged a teammate who leaped into her arms. In her head, she thought, “I’m baaaack!”

“Her presence seems lighter and happier than I remember it being in Chicago,” said Angel City teammate Sarah Gorden, a fellow mother who also played with Ertz on the Red Stars. “She seems like a happier person, honestly.”

“When I play now, I play with a different love and affection,” Ertz said. “The day when you’re like, ‘Okay, it’s time to step away,’ it’s exciting for new challenges, but you’ll never have that thing in your life. I’ve done it since I was 3 or 4. It’s just a reality. It’s a part of you, and then when it’s not, it’s almost like a heartbreak.”

Several people have asked Ertz whether she wants to keep going long enough for Madden to be cognizant of watching his mom play. She does not quite think about it that way. She wants to appreciate each day as it comes. She will stop playing soccer someday. She only knows the time is not now.

“When’s right,” Ertz asked, “to be done with something you love?”


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