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The potential risk and reward of Angel City’s Julie Ertz signing

Julie Ertz returned to the USWNT in April for the first time since August 2021. (Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

The news became official Monday: Julie Ertz has joined Angel City FC on a one-year contract, solidifying the star midfielder’s long-awaited return to the NWSL.

In a way, Ertz’s signing is a resolution years in the making, after Angel City acquired her playing in a trade with the Chicago Red Stars for expansion draft immunity prior to the 2022 season. Ertz entered 2023 a free agent and credited Angel City’s constant communication as a factor in her decision to sign with the club.

“From the moment they traded for my rights up until now, they have been unwavering in their support of my journey,” Ertz said in a team release.

Ertz has been based in Arizona during her time away from professional soccer. Now that she has also returned to the U.S. women’s national team, playing in both friendlies last week against the Republic of Ireland, an NWSL opportunity close to home could be just what the 30-year-old needs to be ready for her third World Cup this summer.

Her presence could also be just what Angel City needs to qualify for its first NWSL postseason.

Is Ertz the final piece?

As Ertz narrowed down her possible club destinations in preparation for the 2023 World Cup, the concept of fit had more to do with business off the field than skill on the field. Ertz is a proven leader who captained the Red Stars for a number of years, while winning World Cups in both the defense and the midfield for the USWNT. She’ll almost certainly be the new anchor of the Angel City midfield.

The match came down to which NWSL clubs could afford to pay the superstar, and which coaches would be willing to displace their regular defensive midfield starters in favor of a generational player. Ertz will be available for up to 12 games before she ostensibly leaves for the World Cup in New Zealand. While she is still working out her timing at the professional level, she remains an intimidating physical presence and her top sprint speed appears unhindered as she builds minutes.

Angel City taking the chance on a short-term home run in the midfield makes some sense. They struggled with possession build-ups in 2022, forcing them to put in more effort off the ball than they could sustain over the course of a season. As injuries piled up, ACFC’s inability to close out games haunted them, as they fell just short of the playoff line in their inaugural season. They haven’t had much better injury luck so far in 2023, losing forward Simone Charley to a season-ending Achilles tear and waiting on Christen Press and Sydney Leroux to return from long-term injuries.

Ertz herself is not going to score an overwhelming amount of goals for Angel City, but she’ll impact almost every play in the build-up to the attack. The midfielder is one of the best at covering space defensively in front of the backline, and she’s not afraid to try probing passes through the opposing defense to find runners in behind. Angel City also has room for her, though she’ll likely displace regular starter Dani Weatherholt from her spot at the No. 6 position, at least temporarily.

Short-term bet vs. long-term build

Ertz may very well bolster Angel City and set them up to make a run at the NWSL playoffs, even after she departs for the World Cup. But the decision to sign a veteran player openly making a push for a national team roster spot to a one-year deal places the L.A. club in an interesting place in the NWSL landscape.

Angel City has developed a delicate balance between veteran stars and rising talent over the last two years, with both positive and questionable returns. Press and Leroux have been key locker room leaders despite not seeing much time on the field, but a lack of availability has limited the team’s playing style in a way that hasn’t always been conducive to the grind of an NWSL regular season.

Ertz checks off similar boxes. She’s a fierce competitor, an excellent on-field communicator with years of experience and one of the best in the world when she’s fit. But she’s only committing to one year with the club and appealing for playing time to earn a spot with the USWNT. When she does play for Angel City, it will be because she’s likely still the best option at her particular position. But the lack of continuity will force head coach Freya Coombe to ask some tough questions of her lineup as she steers the club beyond 2023.

Angel City has shown a commitment to the future in other areas, most notably by drafting rising USWNT star forward Alyssa Thompson with the 2023 No. 1 pick. Thompson will only continue to improve going up against Ertz regularly in training, to the U.S.’s benefit. But if Ertz’s time in Los Angeles ends up being cut short for any reason, the team might have missed out on the opportunity to build a position of need organically.

Ultimately, Angel City is betting on a superstar at one of the most important positions to radically alter the team’s chances in the short term, and there’s almost no better fit in that role than Ertz. What happens after this season may have been pushed toward the future, but for an expansion club pushing for its first-ever playoff appearance, this might be the move that puts the team over the top.

Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.