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USWNT’s Julie Ertz returns to center back position at World Cup

AUCKLAND, New Zealand – Often overshadowed in the glare of their trophies and titles is the US women’s unselfishness.

Every one of the 23 players is a star in his own right, the best player on his team or his position for most if not all of his career. But they cannot all have starring roles when they’re with the USWNT. Some will be unsung, doing the dirty work necessary to score goals and win games. Some will be backups. Some will never get off the bench.

And some will play positions they don’t normally play, or haven’t in several years.

Like Julie Ertz, who started at center back in Saturday’s win (late Friday in the US) over Vietnam despite not having played the position consistently since 2017 and this being only her third game back with the USWNT since the Tokyo Olympics.

“Throughout my entire time with the national team, you always have to be versatile,” Ertz said. “You’re always thrown into different things, you just ask what you’re needed to do.”

Julie Ertz controls the ball against Vietnam at the World Cup.

Julie Ertz controls the ball against Vietnam at the World Cup.

Ertz was a terrific center back, and her play on the backline went a long way toward the USWNT winning the World Cup title in 2015. The Americans gave up just three goals in seven games — and two of those came in the final, after the USWNT already had a 4-0 lead.

She transitioned to defensive midfielder in 2017, and was named US Soccer Player of the Year that year. She earned the honor again in 2019, after being an integral part of the World Cup-winning team. Her defensive background and field vision made her indispensable in the midfield, able to shut down opponents’ attacks and create openings for her teammates.

Ertz was able to play at the Tokyo Olympics despite suffering a knee injury two months earlier. She did not return to the NWSL after the Games, then missed last season due to the birth of her son Madden last August.

When she talked to US coach Vlatko Andonovski about coming back for the World Cup, he raised the idea of ​​her returning to her old center back position. Then, when Becky Sauerbrunn was ruled out of the World Cup with a foot injury, the hypothetical became a necessity.

“I had a conversation with Julie before we even tried it,” Andonovski said. “She wanted to get adjusted and acclimated as soon as possible. Today, it showed how good she can be in the backline, in possession and out of possession.”

So good, it was easy to forget that Ertz hadn’t played center back since the USWNT’s opener in France four years ago – Sauerbrunn was held out of that game with an injury – and not on a regular basis since 2017.

To give you an idea of ​​just how long ago that was, backline partner Naomi Girma was playing with the U-19 squad then.

“Na’s great. I love the communication” with her, Ertz said. “We’re just really committed to being the best we can be, so that communication is a huge start.”

Outsiders might think it’s a given that USWNT players will put aside their personal wants and ambitions for the good of the team. But they are human like anyone else, with egos and pride. To accept a role, whether it’s one you don’t really want or one you’re not used to, is not a small thing and should not be overlooked.

Crystal Dunn plays left back for the USWNT despite being an excellent midfielder with the Portland Thorns. She doesn’t love it, but she does it because it’s what she’s asked and it’s what the USWNT needs.

Ditto for Ertz. She wanted back on this team, in whatever capacity Andonovski asked her to play.

“She was offered the task and immediately said, ‘Coach, whatever we need to do to win this thing,'” Andonovski recalled.

Whether Ertz remains at center back remains to be seen.

The USWNT’s game against the Netherlands at 9 pm ET Wednesday is massive, with the winner likely finishing atop Group E and securing a path that avoids England, Germany, France and Canada until the final. There will be no room for experimentation or giving inexperienced players a chance to get the nerves out. That would seem to call for Ertz to remain on the backline.

“I can’t say anything for certain,” Andonovski said. “For this game, we needed her to be a center back and she played very well for us. For the next game, we’re going to look into it and decide if she’s going to be a midfielder or a center back.”

Whatever role she’s given, Ertz will play it, as all her teammates do. Personal accolades are nice, but they don’t compare with being able to say you won a World Cup.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armor on Twitter @nrarmour.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: USWNT’s Julie Ertz returns to center back position at 2023 World Cup