I’m a sucker for a midfielder. Especially one like Julie Ertz. It’s not that I played there or anything. It’s just something about a player who sees all the angles on both sides of the ball before being anywhere near it that gets me, I think. Xabi Alonso is my favorite Liverpool player of all time. And Ertz is my favorite USWNT player. Both Ertz and Alonso could break up an attack coming their way, usually reading a pass two or three steps before it was made, regain possession, and then ping a pass of their own to start an attack, all with barely moving more than five yards. There were just angles and openings only they could see. Like they could read The Matrix. Or maybe it was the barely moving part that enchanted me. I’m very into not moving.
Julie Ertz retired from soccer yesterday, and if anyone wanted to pinpoint the USWNT’s biggest problem this last World Cup cycle, it was that they could never figure out what to do when they didn’t have Julie Ertz at the base of midfield. Which perhaps was the biggest indictment of Vlatko Andonovksi, BECAUSE HE HAD JULIE ERTZ IN THE SQUAD! He just played her in defense for…reasons. Sure, after injuries, pregnancy, and inaction she may have only been about 60 or 70 percent of Julie Ertz, but that was still miles better than anything they had on offer. And the entire system hinged on having someone do what Julie Ertz did.
What’s so striking about Ertz’s peak is that she shone so brightly while playing for managers who were so limited. And those managers got away with it because Ertz was so good. It’s been erased by success now, but the USWNT players hated playing for Jill Ellis, partially because her tactical and training plan was so very limited and plain. She can wave her two World Cup winner’s medals around to dispute that now, but the team did try to get her fired.
It still worked because even though a good portion of her plan was, “Let Julie take care of it,” Julie took care of it. She broke up every attack against the US, as they mostly wanted to play on the counter. It was as if she was the only one given a script as to how the other team would attack and was just there. And then she would ping out a 40- or 50-yard pass to Rapinoe or Morgan or Press or Heath and get them going in open field, where they were lethal. It wasn’t a complicated plan, and wouldn’t have worked without Ertz as the fulcrum.
And it would always result in a lead. And then Ellis, in her limited thinking, would shift to a 5-4-1 with Ertz slotting back into defense from midfield. And that would work too, because Ertz would head every cross away or tackle any forward who dared to impose on her or intercept any pass that had the audacity to come into her area code. You don’t need a genius method when you have the best weapons at your disposal.
It wasn’t much different for her club team. To really know the brilliance of Ertz, one had to see the last couple of years she spent with the Chicago Red Stars. Manager Rory Dames was an unrepentant ass, and to boot he had all the tactical nous of a goldfish. The Red Stars plan didn’t evolve much beyond, “Let Ertz get the ball and find Sam Kerr on the other end.” But due to the brilliance of both, it almost always worked. Ertz breaks up an attack, collects the ball, and spreads it out to an attacker in space. At her best, it looked rote, effortless. She felt like a ringer at times, not putting out so much effort to embarrass anyone but making it clear just how much above she was when reading the game.
The USWNT was still built on having that, without considering that no one else could make it go like Ertz. It wanted to be direct, but didn’t have anyone to replace Ertz’s vision. It wanted to be comfortable inviting teams onto them, but didn’t have anyone to sniff out danger in the middle like Ertz could. Teams could flood the midfield and seemingly outnumber her, but it didn’t matter because she just knew where the next pass was going.
Ertz never got the headlines that Alex Morgan got with her goals, or Megan Rapinoe got with dynamism, or Heath with her dribbling. But the most recent squad had replacements for all those with a new generation — Sophia Smith, Alyssa Thompson, Lynn Williams, and the unfortunately injured Mallory Swanson.
But they never found another Ertz. How could you? They are generational. And they still acted like they could get away with not having one. The results were clear.
Ertz played the game like she’d already watched it and then got to insert herself in the replay. She was a genius without ever having to look like one. The US will be very lucky if it ever finds another one.
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