In the months before Jill Ellis named the U.S. squad for the Women's World Cup, one of the biggest criticisms of the team's player pool was its lack of youth.

Julie Johnston has almost single-handedly quieted those critics.

When the Algarve Cup kicked off in March, the 23-year-old central defender took the starting spot on the back line that had been held by injured veteran Christie Rampone. Since then, Johnston has played so well that she has become one of the first names written in the starting lineup. In 556 minutes on the field across eight games, the United States has given up just two goals.

"The moment I got the call that I made the team was a chance to kind of step back and see hard work pay off," she told The Inquirer in a recent interview. "It was also pretty cool to realize I didn't make it just because. I felt like I put a lot of hard work into trying to make the team, and to make the team was kind of a cherry-on-top moment."

Just as impressively, Johnston racked up a three-game scoring streak. Among her goals was the winner against powerhouse France in the Algarve Cup title game on March 11.

"Whatever this team needs me to do, I want to be willing to do it, and I want to do it to the best of my ability," she said. "You play for the girls next to you, and you play for this country. Whatever is expected from me or is asked from me, I'm going to try to do whatever I need to do for the team."

Rampone is among those impressed by Johnston's rise and work ethic. As the last player from the 1999 Women's World Cup-winning U.S. team, Rampone is the unquestioned leader, and a star. But she sees that Johnston's time is arriving.

"She's been persevering and fighting and pushing along, and she got that chance and has made the most of it," Rampone said. "She has come in calm and confident, and done an exceptional job at the highest level."

For Ellis, a key part of Johnston's rise has been how she has embraced life in the spotlight that comes with being among the national team's stars.

"The more time young players spend in this environment, not only do they get more comfortable and the nerves go out a little bit, but they also understand the expectations," Ellis said. "The only thing I felt Julie did lack was experience in big games at this level. She's now gotten that - she seized the moment and performed very, very well."

Next week, those expectations will rise even higher. From what Johnston has shown so far, there's every reason to believe she'll be up to the challenge.