Julie Johnston is living her dream at Women's World Cup

Unknown before the tournament in Canada, Julie Johnston has played every minute of the U.S. group play

A little more than four months ago, Julie Johnston was among the most anonymous players on the U.S. national soccer team, with a career resume that consisted of just one start.

But in this Women's World Cup, she played every minute of the Americans' three group-play games — and was arguably the team's best player for most of those minutes.

Yet the transition from anonymity to acclaim has happened so quickly even the 23-year-old Johnston couldn't keep up.

"To hear the fans cheering your name, that's really shocking," she said. "I'm like, 'Wait, how do you know my name?' It's definitely different than where I was a year ago."

Back then she was with the Chicago Red Stars of the National Women's Soccer League, whose home attendance was less than 36,000 for the season. The U.S. drew more than that in its last game.

And during the last Women's World Cup, Johnston was on the sofa with her dog, watching the games on TV.

"There's just moments where I'm like, 'Wow, I'm passing the ball with Abby [Wambach],' " she said of the change. "I don't think I'd ever tell them that because they'd probably make fun of me.

"But it's pretty cool."

There is one person who saw all this coming, though. In the fall of 2012, U.S. captain Christie Rampone met with Johnston during a training session in Arizona. Nodding toward the field, Rampone told her, "You'll be here. Don't doubt yourself."

Johnston didn't just take Rampone's advice; she also took her job in central defense. When a back injury sent Rampone to the sidelines last winter, it opened the door for Johnston, who seized the opportunity.

Yet Rampone, a sub for the first time in 15 years, remains Johnston's biggest cheerleader and mentor.

"She's done a tremendous job with only playing so many games and then stepping into a World Cup and being on a big stage," said Rampone, 39. who is playing in her fifth world championship. "She just brings that energy and presence that we need.

"I've seen her grow even from her first [training] camp."

In Canada, Johnston has anchored a young back line that has allowed just one goal — none in its last 243 minutes. In the 1-0 win over Nigeria that gave the U.S. the group title, Johnston was named the player of the game after twice making outstanding plays that may have saved goals.

"For a young player, she shows a lot of poise," U.S. Coach Jill Ellis said of Johnston. "She's tough. And her timing is excellent."

Yet despite Johnston's wide-eyed wonder, none of this happened by surprise. The road to a starting spot on the national team is one Johnston has been following for some time now.

In college at Santa Clara, where she played every position but goalkeeper, Johnston made three All-America teams and was twice a semifinalist for the MAC Hermann Trophy, soccer's version of the Heisman. As a junior, she also captained a U.S. junior team to the under-20 World Cup title in 2012, where she was the only defender chosen as one of the tournament's top three players.

Then last summer, she was named the NWSL's rookie of the year.

But while Johnston came into the World Cup year with something of a pedigree, she also came in with just five U.S. national team appearances. Rampone's injury changed that.

"She's been a tremendous player in our youth system and been very, very solid," Ellis said of Johnston. "Opportunity presented itself with some injuries, so now she's getting started in big games. And she's risen to the level."

Pool play at this World Cup has provided a kind of finishing school then — and not just for Johnston but for Meghan Klingenberg and Becky Sauerbrunn as well, since the three starting defenders came to Canada with just one match of World Cup experience combined. With the U.S. having been drawn into the tournament's "group of death," with two other top-10 teams in Sweden and Australia, plus Nigeria, a nine-time African champion, the defensive trio was baptized under fire.

"There's not a back line in the world that wouldn't be tested in this group, with just the pace and transition of these teams," Ellis said. "We just talked about how battle-tested we are coming out of that. [And] how confident we should feel in our back line.

"Our youngsters have been tremendous."

Johnston typically deflects such praise by mumbling cliches about teamwork and just doing her job. But then she steps back, pinches herself and remembers that she's in the World Cup, a place where everybody knows her name.

"I always was like, 'Oh yeah, that would be so cool to be in the World Cup.' But ... I don't think I was ever convinced that it was a possibility for me," she said. "Some days when I kind of reflect and just think about what's happened in the past four years, it's pretty amazing to be teammates with players that you idolized.

"I'm still trying to figure it out. I'm just trying to embrace the moment. I'm just trying to take it all in and enjoy the journey."

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

Twitter: @kbaxter11

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