On the US back line, a secret plan is an instant hit
Fans parade to Eden Park ahead of the U.S. vs. Vietnam Women’s World Cup match in Auckland, New Zealand, July 22, 2023. (Tatsiana Chypsanava/The New York Times)
By JULIET MACUR
When Julie Ertz returned from maternity leave this year and began a race to get herself ready to play for the United States at the World Cup, she expected life on the national team to be different. But different because she was adjusting to life as a mother and had new off-the-field responsibilities, not different because she would be playing a new position.
Yet when coach Vlatko Andonovski reached out and asked her if she would consider returning as a center back, a role she had not played in years, instead of as a defensive midfielder, Ertz said yes right away. Anything, she told Andonovski, to help the team win.
The switch was, at the time, a closely held secret inside the team. In several weeks of practices, Ertz took the place of Alana Cook in the back line and set to work trying to develop a working relationship with her new center-back partner, World Cup newcomer Naomi Girma.
The Ertz-Girma pairing made its public debut in the team’s 3-0 victory over Vietnam last Friday. And in 90 scoreless minutes, they seemed as if they had been playing side by side for years.
Ertz, who had played center back for the Americans’ 2015 World Cup-winning team before becoming one of the best defensive midfielders in the world, didn’t miss a beat. Girma was not surprised: She called her new partner “one of the best on the team at that communication, of leading, organizing.”
The familiarity and relationship between Ertz and Girma will be even more important for the United States when it tries to fend off its second opponent, the Netherlands, today (9 p.m. ET, FOX). The Dutch, whom the United States played and beat in the World Cup final in 2019 and during the Tokyo Olympics two years later, will pose a much stronger threat to the Americans than Vietnam did. They beat Portugal on Sunday and move the ball around quicker and more accurately. Their precise passing — honed over years together and in the world’s best leagues — has the capability of picking apart even the strongest, and sturdiest, defenses.
Girma did not seem worried earlier this week.
“Us two balancing off of each other in the middle of the game, being like, ‘OK, I think we should do this a little differently,’ and making those small adjustments during the game, was really good for us,” Girma said.
Andonovski said he got the idea to move Ertz out of the midfield and onto the back line not long after the U.S. team’s captain, Becky Sauerbrunn, was ruled out of the World Cup with a nagging foot injury. The team needed a strong replacement. And just as Sauerbrunn had once served as a steadying influence for Ertz, who was still a relative newcomer before the 2015 World Cup, Ertz now took a turn in the leadership position.
“I think it today it showed that how good she can be in the back line, in possession and out of possession,” Andonovski said of Ertz’s performance after the Vietnam game. “So I’m glad that we made that decision.”
FIFA Women’s World Cup
Switzerland 0, Norway 0
Philippines 1, New Zealand 0
Today’s Games (all times Eastern Standard Time)
Japan vs. Costa Rica (1 a.m., FS1)
Spain vs. Zambia (3:30 a.m., FSI)
Canada vs. Republic of Ireland (8 a.m., FS1)
United States vs. Netherlands (9 p.m., FOX)