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The case for and against Julie Ertz’s risky return to the USWNT

Julie Ertz last played for the USWNT at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021. (Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images)

U.S. Soccer shook up the international game with one simple announcement on Tuesday morning: Julie Ertz is going to be playing professional soccer in April. The defensive midfielder returns to the U.S. women’s national team roster for the first time since the Olympics in 2021, having also not played in the NWSL since May of that same year.

Ertz battled a knee injury to return to the USWNT in time for a bronze-medal performance in Tokyo, and since then has taken time off for the birth of her son Madden in August 2022.

Prior to her absence, Ertz was a USWNT mainstay as the defensive-minded conductor of the midfield that the team has struggled to replace since the Olympics.

Why the U.S. needs Ertz back

Head coach Vlatko Andonovski’s decision to bring Ertz back into the fold raises questions about the team’s inability to imagine a future without her. The team has relied heavily on the Washington Spirit’s Andi Sullivan in a similar role with varied results. Sullivan is a possession-style player, which differs from Ertz’s ability to cover an immense amount of space defensively. The U.S. also tried Kristie Mewis, Lindsey Horan and Taylor Kornieck in similar roles, playing more attacking-minded midfielders out of their natural positions.

Andonovski’s U.S. has experimented with help defense in the seams between the central defense and the attacking midfield, but it has never quite committed to the dual-No. 6 pivot likely necessary to fill defensive gaps and move the ball forward consistently. In some games, like the USWNT’s SheBelieves match against Canada, the current midfield has looked fluid and effective. But in others, like the USWNT’s SheBelieves match against Japan and friendlies against top European sides in 2022, the middle of the pitch became an area of weakness.

“We’re excited to have Julie back. We know the quality of the player that she is, and that if she comes anywhere near her best, she will certainly help us win a World Cup,” Andonovski told the media after the roster announcement.

The coach’s statement is as much an encouraging sign as an acknowledgement that the team still needs a bruising defensive midfielder who can disrupt and re-distribute.

Ertz not only has the ability to progress the ball through short and simple passes, but she can also recover turnovers that occur in front of her when she is in full control of her explosiveness. Horan, Rose Lavelle and Ashley Sanchez have the creativity in the attacking midfield to draw defenders in and create space for the USWNT’s arsenal of winger talent, but when the ball is misplaced, the team has struggled in defensive transition. When you play high-risk, high-reward passes, you have to have a plan for how to adjust when challenged, and a healthy Ertz papers over the cracks in the system.

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Ertz, Emily Sonnett and other USWNT veterans will appear in April camp after dealing with injuries. (Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)

The unknowns of Ertz’s return

Despite the optimism surrounding the announcement, there’s actually no guarantee Ertz is fully healthy, though Andonovski expressed full confidence in her high-performance setup.

“I had a chance to see some of the training and firsthand, training with MLS Academy boys,” he said. “She trained with a personal high-performance coach, or personal technical coach, and was up to the level that a lot of professional players were training, or sometimes even harder.”

Despite her extensive personal training, Ertz hasn’t played a professional soccer game in over 600 days, something Andonovski said she is trying to rectify. The 30-year-old now becomes the highest-profile NWSL free agent still on the market. What her sprint speed looks like, how her touch on the ball adjusts, and how many minutes she can play at the highest level will determine whether the benefits of bringing her back outweigh the costs.

Calling into camp a player who has not trained with a club team for so long flies in the face of Andonovski’s repeated claims that current form matters when making roster decisions. The U.S. has spent months building a young group into a new core for both the present and the future, and inserting a very different type of player threatens to upset the delicate balance of roster personalities.

But also, if Julie Ertz is available, how do you say no?

“If somebody’s 80 or 90 percent is still better than somebody else’s best, then too bad,” Andonovski said. “Anyone that will help us win the World Cup will be considered.”

Those cases have to be considered carefully, he continued, with the understanding that the team can’t carry too many injuries into a grueling international tournament like the World Cup. But since the current squad has been unable to find a definitive answer for a position of need, all other options will be considered.

Ultimately, the decision to bring Ertz in as a defensive specialist and a leader might be exactly what the U.S. needs. Or it could further imbalance a roster on a tight-rope act between the past and the future.

“As everyone else, she will have to earn some minutes,” Andonovski said. “Nothing is going to be given.”

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

Clark, Martin Square Off in First Pro WNBA Matchup

Kate Martin #20 of the Las Vegas Aces and Caitlin Clark #22 of the Indiana Fever look on during the game
Things looked a little different Saturday night as the former Iowa teammates went head-to-head in Las Vegas. (Jeff Bottari/NBAE via Getty Images)

Former Iowa teammates Caitlin Clark and Kate Martin shared the court once again on Saturday, this time as professionals.

It was Martin’s Aces that got the 99-80 win over Clark’s Fever in Las Vegas. The pair's former coaches Lisa Bluder, Jan Jensen, Jenni Fitzgerald, and Raina Harmon were all in attendance to watch their Hawkeyes — Clark, Martin, and former national player of the year Megan Gustafson — take the court.

"It’s super special. It’s cool for our program, cool for Lisa, for Coach Jan, for all of them," Clark said in a pregame press conference. "They’ve known me since I’ve been 13 years old and now I’m 22 getting to live out my dream and they’ve been a huge part of that and helping me get here and helping Megan and Kate to get here too. It’s a great moment for them and I’m sure they’re not complaining about a trip to Vegas."

As for her college teammate, Clark had nothing but good things to say ahead of the showdown. 

"I’m just really happy for her and everything Coach [Becky] Hammon says about her is so true," she said. "Every person that played at Iowa and was around her knows that to be true. She’s the ultimate teammate, ultimate person, ultimate leader."

In the end, Martin stole the show with 12 points and seven rebounds in 22 minutes, while Clark amassed eight points, seven assists, and five rebounds over 29 minutes of playing time. 

"It was weird," Martin admitted after the game. "I'm not going to lie — just looking out on the court and seeing her in a different jersey than me, it was obviously different. But it's really fun. We're both living out our dreams right now."

The Aces next meet the fever on July 2nd at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

Barcelona Beat Lyon to Win Back-to-Back Champions League Titles

Barcelona's Aitana Bonmatí and Alexia Putellas celebrating after beating Lyon at the 2024 Champions League final
Ballon d'Or winners Aitana Bonmatí and Alexia Putellas helped Barcelona to a second-straight UWCL title on Saturday. (Ramsey Cardy - Sportsfile/UEFA via Getty Images)

Barcelona was crowned champion of the Champions League on Saturday with a 2-0 win over Lyon in Bilbao.

Alexia "La Reina" Putellas, who recently re-signed with Barcelona, came off the bench to score the team's second goal. Fellow Ballon d’Or winner Aitana Bonmatí provided the team’s first. After the game, defender Lucy Bronze said Putellas was nicknamed "the queen" for a reason.

"Alexia is the captain of the team and she's the queen of Barcelona for a reason,"  defender Lucy Bronze told DAZN. "She's got the quality to do that in the last minute of the Champions League final when we were up against it at the end and it just sealed the win for us. It was amazing."

The victory marked Barcelona's first win over Lyon in a UWCL final, having previously gone up against the French side at both the 2019 and 2022 Champions League finals. It's also Barcelona's second Champions League title in a row.

"It's hard to win it once, but to do it back-to-back, Lyon showed how difficult it is and this team has finally done that," Bronze said. "I think we go down in history as one of the best teams in Europe."

This season, the team also secured a quadruple for the first time in club history, having already won Liga F, the Copa de la Reina, and the Spanish Supercopa. The win ensures that coach Jonatan Giráldez — who has officially departed the team to join the NWSL's Washington Spirit — leaves Europe a champion.

"It was an incredible game. I am really happy, it's one of the best days of my life for sure," Giráldez told broadcaster DAZN after the game. "We did an amazing job. I am very proud of all of them."

Following the win, Putellas said her team "can't ask for anything else."

"Our objective was to win four out of four," the Spain international told reporters. "We have achieved everything we wanted. Every minute of sacrifice has been worth the effort — and I'd say that not after the game, but before, just entering in the stadium, with all the support we had here, it was worth it."

2024 Laureus World Sportswoman of the Year Aitana Bonmatí said that the crowd support made it "feel like Camp Nou."

"I am on cloud nine right now," she said. "It is an historic day which we will remember forever."

Sun’s Alyssa Thomas Ejected After Flagrant 2 on Sky Rookie Angel Reese

Angel Reese said there were "no hard feelings" stemming from Alyssa Thomas's flagrant foul. (Melissa Tamez/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Angel Reese might have gotten knocked down on Saturday, but she got right back up again. 

Connecticut’s Alyssa Thomas was ejected from the Sun’s 86-82 win over Chicago following a flagrant foul 2 on Reese — the first of her career. While the two were battling for a rebound, Reese took a clothesline hold around the neck courtesy of Thomas before hitting the ground.

After the game, Reese told reporters that there were "no hard feelings" and she appreciated Thomas for playing her hard beneath the basket.

"I know she purposely probably didn’t do it towards me," Reese said. "But just being able to come out there and just be strong and stand on two feet, it was going to be a tough game and that’s what I’m built for. And my teammates had my back throughout the whole game. So I was prepared for it."

She also didn’t buy into the idea that it was a "Welcome to the WNBA" moment, but thanked Thomas "sending a message" because it helped her get back up and "keep pushing."

"It’s not just because I’m a rookie. I’m a player. I’m a basketball player. They don’t give a damn if I’m a rookie. I mean, I want them to come at me every day. I want them to come at everybody," she added. "I mean, they’re not supposed to be nice to me. I hope y’all know that. They’re not supposed to be nice to me or lay down because I’m Angel Reese or because I’m a rookie."

Reese finished the game with 13 points, five rebounds, and two assists over 33 minutes.

Barcelona to Face Lyon in Champions League Rematch This Weekend

UEFA Women's Champions League Final"Barcelona FC - Olympique Lyonnais"
Saturday's game will be the third UWCL final meeting for Barcelona and Lyon, having previously gone up against each other in 2019 and 2022. (ANP via Getty Images)

The UEFA Women's Champions League final kicks off in Bilbao on Saturday, with a couple of familiar foes set to face off for the trophy.

Olympique Lyonnais Féminin, making its 11th final appearance since 2010, will go head to head with a Barcelona side making its fourth final appearance in a row.

This will be the third time these two teams meet in the UWCL title game, having previously appeared in the 2019 and 2022 finals. Lyon won both of those prior games against Barcelona, alongside a total of eight Champions League trophies. That’s double that of any other club, with Eintracht Frankfurt coming in a distant second with four. 

Should Barcelona win, this would be the team's third title — breaking a tie for the third in the UWCL total titles race. 

But as these teams return to the UWCL final, it also marks the end of an era for both clubs. The game will be the last for both club managers, as Barcelona’s Jonatan Giráldez and Lyon’s Sonia Bompastor depart for new jobs after the season's end.

Giráldez is set to leave for the NWSL's Washington Spirit, while Bompastor will take over for incoming USWNT coach Emma Hayes at Chelsea. Both coaches have earned one UWCL trophy during their tenures, while Bompastor also brought two Champions League trophies to Lyon as a player. She was the first coach to win a UWCL trophy as both a coach and player.

This season, Barcelona is looking for its first quadruple, having won a fifth Liga F title alongside the Copa de La Reina, and the Spanish Supercopa. 

"We hope he can go out with the four trophies because we know how competitive and ambitious he is," Barcelona midfielder Patri Guijarro told ESPN. "It has been a winning era with him in charge and for him to go out with all four trophies would be historic and incredible."

But Lyon's Damaris Egurrola is excited about her team's chances of overcoming Barcelona once again — and to do it in front of family and friends.

"Lyon have something special," she told Forbes ahead of the weekend's final. "We have a great team and we have the players with enough talent to win any match."

The game will be a homecoming for Egurrola, who began her professional career with Athletic Bilbao.

"I’ve been thinking of this day and night," she said. "I’ve been dreaming of playing this match. Having the opportunity to play in San Mames is amazing. This is where it all started for me."

The UEFA Women's Champions League final kicks off Saturday, May 25th at 12 PM ET and is free to stream on DAZN.

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