Even before Julie Ertz gave birth to her son, Madden, last August, she knew it would be a challenge to get back to the fitness and shape that would be required of her if she wanted to play in a third Women’s World Cup.

Pregnancy and childbirth, unlike sports injuries, offer no reliable timeline for return, no proven playbook to guide a player back from what is a life-changing event. More importantly, Ertz, who was 30 when Madden was born, wanted to discreetly assess her progress before she made any promises to the national team. To do that without attracting attention, Ertz will need help.

A group of teenage boys answered the call.

Ertz was in Phoenix, which is her hometown and where her husband, Zach, plays shortstop for the Arizona Cardinals. She reached out to two of the coaches who knew her best: Paul Taylor and Matt Midkiff, who helped guide her development from pre-teen prodigy to college All-American. Taylor and Midkiff connected Ertz with Phoenix Rising, a United Soccer League club with a Major League Soccer Academy program. Ertz has arranged to begin training with the club’s under-19 team in February.

When Taylor informed the boys on the team that Julie Ertz was coming to practice, many of the players greeted the news with blank stares.

“At first, I was starstruck,” Burns, 17, said. “I don’t think a lot of my teammates really knew who she was. But I was one of the only ones who was like, ‘Oh my God, this is crazy.'”

Burns, who has committed to play at the University of Virginia, said his older sister, who also plays college soccer, got him to watch women’s soccer at a young age. He knew the players. He knew their histories and their highlights. Still, he said, it took him 15 minutes to work up the courage to introduce himself to Ertz at her first training session. It took even less time to feel like she was a cut above.

“Even on the first day of training we had with her, she was in the best shape out of all of us,” Burns said. “She would do extra sprints after practice. She would do these little things to get a little better. And it showed me that if I want to go to the professional level, I have to do those extra things, too.”

Taylor said Ertz set a high standard for herself in their first conversation. If she was going to come back, she told him, she didn’t want to just come back as the player she was before. She wanted to be better than anyone remembered, better than even she could remember.

“I know the expectation and standards that this team has,” Ertz said. “And I didn’t want to go into any camp if I didn’t feel like I could really compete.”

For Ertz, that motivation came from an intimate knowledge of the national team and the role she would need to play to contribute at this World Cup. At the time she returned to training, the national team captain and defensive back, Becky Sauerbrunn, was struggling with a foot injury. (Sauerbrunn was later left off the World Cup roster.) Sam Mewis, a midfielder who played a pivotal role in the team’s 2019 World Cup championship, endured repeated setbacks with his injured knee. (Mewis may never play elite soccer again.)

Without them, Ertz knew, the American team needed experience and leadership behind them. She needed to be the glue that held the spine of the team together.

But by February, the clock was ticking. When US coach Vlatko Andonovski released the training roster for the SheBelieves Cup, Ertz’s absence was no surprise. However, Andonovski warned, “time is running out for her.”

As the pressure mounted, Ertz remained committed to taking things slowly. She knew she needed to reach peak performance quickly, but she also knew she couldn’t rush it.

By March, national team staff members saw Ertz play with Phoenix Rising in scrimmages and came away impressed. Talk of her returning for the World Cup began to circulate within the team. Defender Kelley O’Hara, who played with Ertz for 10 years, said she was trying to manage her excitement when it started to sound like Ertz might make it back in time.

“I started texting her,” O’Hara said, excitedly mimicking a typing motion with her fingers. “Not trying to put too much pressure, and not trying to, you know, sway her decision. But she’s amazing and she’s an incredible teammate to have, especially in tournaments like this.”

In late March, Andonovski called Ertz into her first training camp since the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. In April, Ertz returned to club soccer by signing with Angel City of the National Women’s Soccer League. Slowly increasing her workload and fitness, Ertz showed Andonovski enough that he named her to his 23-player roster for the World Cup. Days later, in her final game before she left the club to join the national team for training, she played 97 minutes. Her return was complete.

“It was competitive, which is what you need,” Ertz said of her two months with Angel City. “It was an environment to be able to thrive.”

Now a bigger task awaits. She and her American teammates will open the World Cup on Friday night (Eastern time) in Auckland, New Zealand. Madden Ertz and his father will be in the stands cheering. Julie Ertz will likely be right in the middle of the field. Exactly where she wanted to be. Just where her team needs her.

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