Motherhood has given Julie Ertz a new appreciation for soccer and her career

Julie Ertz, center, controls the ball during an international friendly against Ireland on April 11 in St. Louis.
Julie Ertz controls the ball during an international friendly against Ireland on April 11 in St. Louis. Ertz is back on the pitch, but will she be representing the U.S. in the Women’s World Cup this summer?
(John Todd/USSF / Getty Images)
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When Julie Ertz walked off the field after collecting her bronze medal for the U.S. at the Tokyo Olympics, it was as if she stepped into the witness protection program: She immediately disappeared.

Traded by her club team four months later to Angel City FC, she failed to show up to the team’s first training camp. When the national team flew to Mexico for World Cup and Olympic qualifying last summer, she was not on the plane. In fact, very few people knew where she was.

The defensive backbone of two world championship teams, Ertz had vanished from public view. And she stayed that way for nearly two years.


“I just stepped away from social media,” she said a couple of weeks after joining Angel City four games into the NWSL season, “to enjoy being with my family.”

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Also to enjoy starting a family. Last summer Ertz and her husband, NFL tight end Zach Ertz, welcomed their first child, Madden, and that led to a whole other set of questions about her soccer career: After giving birth at 30, could she come back?

With two World Cups, an Olympic medal and two U.S. player of the year awards already on her resume, did she even need to come back?

“I wouldn’t necessarily use the term doubt. But it did kind of change our perspective of making sure that everything is done for him, that he’s first,” she said of her son. “It was just a lot logistically to try to figure out.

“And also I just kind of took the time to make sure my body was back properly. To make sure that I could play and perform.”

Ertz passed that first test last month, proving her fitness by coming off the bench in a pair of friendlies with the national team. Next, she needed a club to play for, and Angel City was the closest NWSL team to her home in Arizona, so she signed a one-year contract with the second-year franchise.


But with this summer’s World Cup in Australia/New Zealand less than two months away, did the comeback come too late? Ertz has played a full 90 minutes just once in the last 22 months and sat out Angel City’s two most recent games with a left thigh injury. She has played a total of 244 minutes in the last five weeks for a team that has won just once in its last nine tries in competition.

Suddenly time is running out.

“She will get there,” Angel City coach Freya Coombe said when asked about Ertz’s fitness for the World Cup. “There’s one thing that I’ve learned about [in] my short time working with her is just her mentality. I think her mentality is such that she will absolutely get there.”

Angel City midfielder Julie Ertz, controls the ball in front of San Diego Wave midfielder Jaedyn Shaw.
Angel City midfielder Julie Ertz, controls the ball in front of San Diego Wave midfielder Jaedyn Shaw during a match at BMO Stadium on April 23.
(Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images)

“Before I could be selfish with my career. Now it’s almost the opposite. ... I love it differently than I did before.”

— Julie Ertz, on how soccer has changed for her after becoming a mother

Ertz certainly is enjoying the game more, which counts for something.

“The process of kind of falling in love with the grind again, because coming back, it was like a clean slate of having to start over,” she said during a 20-minute interview that was punctuated by far more smiles than frowns. “You know, pregnancy is the same thing in the process of coming back from an injury.”

Motherhood also has given her a different reason to play.

“Before I could be selfish with my career. Now it’s almost the opposite,” she said. “Having to step back in that questioning, ‘Oh, will I be able to play again?’ And then you learn that the sport has given you so much. That’s kind of a cool drive to have this moment shared with Madden and my family. I love it differently than I did before.”


She’s not alone in that. If Ertz makes the World Cup roster, she could be one of five soccer moms on the U.S. team, joining forward Alex Morgan, defenders Crystal Dunn and Casey Krueger and backup goalkeeper Adrianna Franch. Four years ago in France there was just one, forward Jessica McDonald.

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And all five have talked about how being a mother has given their game deeper meaning.

Morgan, 33, who gave birth to daughter Charlie three years ago, and Dunn, 30, who delivered son Marcel last May, shared their pregnancies publicly, talking about their workouts on social media and voicing their desire to return to the field after giving birth. Ertz was far more private, although she too trained almost up to the day she gave birth and practiced with a boys’ team in Arizona to prepare for her comeback.

She also talked privately with national team coach Vlatko Andonovski during her extended absence.

“They allowed me to have my time. I was really appreciative of U.S. Soccer in general and the trust that they had in me that I was making the proper decisions for my body to be able to get back,” Ertz said. “When I gave birth, our communication kind of accelerated.

“As a father himself, understanding that aspect, it was a cool way to communicate with your coach, being a new mom and [the] expectations he has and where the team is going and where he saw me kind of possibility fitting in.”

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Where she fits in is in the same role she vacated when she stepped away: providing both experience and bite in the center of the midfield. Andi Sullivan, a gifted athlete, filled that hole for much of the last 18 months but lacked Ertz’s physical presence and experience, two reasons why the U.S. has lost just five of the 118 games in which Ertz has played.


Given all that, even at something less than 100%, Ertz is likely to get a long look before the World Cup roster is set.

“I was surprised at the level that she came in at — in a good way,” Coombe said. “I do think that there’s another level for her to go in terms of her match fitness and just being to be up to speed with the games. There’s more room for her to go and then getting to that fifth gear.”

Yet for all Ertz brings physically, it’s the mental part of her game that has benefited most from the time away — and from Andonovski’s approach to her comeback.

“He allowed me a space to just fall in love [with] the game again,” Ertz said. “It’s a gift I can never repay. [It’s] a game that I love so much. But I think you have to find it again sometimes.”

“It’s really hard to kind of put my journey in a few words because it was so emotional,” she added. “How do you explain a feeling so deep when you have a child?”