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Julie Ertz on USWNT return: ‘I want to be better’

(Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

When asked what led to her return to the U.S. women’s national team after over a year away from professional soccer, Julie Ertz didn’t mince words.

“I probably am back because I do love competing. I love playing the sport, I thoroughly enjoy it,” she told reporters Tuesday. “In the back of your head, it’s hard to not have that itch when you’re just so used to being so competitive.”

Ertz is participating in USWNT camp this week, her first one since August 2021. As the USWNT prepares to play two friendlies against the Republic of Ireland, Ertz will be competing for a spot on the 2023 World Cup roster, a somewhat surprising development after head coach Vlatko Andonovski had said the 30-year-old was running out of time to get a look with the team.

Ertz’s decision to return came after long conversations with husband Zach, a tight end for the Arizona Cardinals, not least because now she returns to the team as a mother. Ertz had her first child, son Madden, in August 2022.

“I love the sport differently than I did then, and I thought I loved it then. But taking a step away and kind of having a new perspective has given me kind of like a new drive,” Ertz said, explaining the thought process that brought her back to the sport after not being sure she’d return to the team in time for this summer’s major tournament.

“There definitely was a switch when I had a really long conversation with Zach. And I think when you have two athletes probably closer towards [the end], not the beginning of their career, it’s emotional. It’s emotional conversations, but also very touching, and real and raw.”

Ertz rejoins a USWNT that has changed significantly from the squad that earned a bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics, where the midfielder briefly returned from a knee injury that has kept her away from the NWSL since May 2021. There is still room, however, for the two-time World Champion, who brings experience and a specific skill set to the defensive midfield that the team has struggled to replace.

Ertz’s surprise return raised a number of follow-up questions that she answered in some detail on Tuesday. She is in talks with multiple NWSL teams (though she would not say which ones), and she hopes to be back on an NWSL field soon. She was able to work out consistently during her pregnancy, with support from both U.S. Soccer and resources in her home state of Arizona.

She credited fellow NWSL moms Cheyna Matthews and Kealia Watt for sharing their experiences with her, and said that she and Watt (another free agent) worked out together after their pregnancies. She’s also been in consistent contact with Andonovski, describing how she became a student of the current style of the USWNT before she was physically ready to return.

What hasn’t changed for Ertz is her mentality, and the veteran leadership she immediately infuses into a USWNT squad that’s much younger than it was in 2021.

“Obviously, she’s a talented player,” said USWNT teammate Sophia Smith. “She’s been at the highest stage, she’s won everything you could win. So it’s always a good thing to have someone with so much experience back in camp.”

Until she makes her 2023 debut, it will be difficult to gauge where Ertz stands with respect to fitness and mental sharpness, but she doesn’t intend to rest on her reputation.

“The energy she’s been bringing is great. And technically, she looks like she hasn’t missed a beat,” says Smith.

“I’m in a good headspace to just understand, to give myself a little bit of grace,” Ertz echoes. “But overall, I feel like being in this environment, you know the game.”

She will face pressure to perform right away, and the 30-year-old isn’t shying away from the competitiveness that inspired her return in the first place.

“I’ve learned that pressure is a privilege. And there’s always been pressure in any position, any time of my career,” she said. “I don’t want to go back and be the player that I was, I want to be better.”

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