HARRISON, N.J. — U.S. women’s soccer team coach Vlatko Andonovski recently said Julie Ertz “might be the most important player on this squad.”
The rest of the soccer world raves about her too, so much so that there were ample calls for her to win last year's World Cup most outstanding player over Megan Rapinoe.
Last week, England coach Phil Neville called Ertz "probably the one player I would take out of that [U.S.] team" for his. He might take the number back if given a chance, considering the vast array of talent that dismissed his team 2-0 Thursday night in Orlando.
But he has a point. Ertz has proven herself to be not just a star, but the first name written into almost every U.S. starting lineup. And right now seems a pretty good time to celebrate that, since the 27-year-old made her 100th career national team appearance in the England game.
"She's the glue defensively and she's a go-to person offensively, and besides that, she's a true professional and student of the game," Andonovski said. "It's just a pleasure working with her."
Ertz is likely to earn her 101st cap on Sunday when the U.S. plays Spain at Red Bull Arena (5 p.m. ESPN and TUDN) — and yes, husband Zach will be in attendance.
She has been a key part of the U.S. program for a long time, and not just since she made her senior team debut in 2013. The year before then, she captained the under-20 team that won that year’s World Cup — and remains the last American squad to win that tournament.
Andonovski has seen Ertz grow throughout her career, as he made his women's soccer coaching debut in 2013. But he admitted that for all he has done in the sport, he didn't know the full breadth of her skills until he took over the national team.
"The more we work and the more we play and the more games we get, I've just started to get a feeling that this team revolves around her," he said.
That includes not just her defensive hustle, but her attacking contributions as well. She has 19 goals and four assists for the national team, and if soccer counted two assists per goal the way hockey does she'd have a lot more.
"She is actually evolving into not just what she was known as, this destroyer No. 6, but she is known as a modern No. 6," Andonovski said, using the positional term for Ertz's defensive midfield role. "If you look at the modern No. 6's or modern midfielders now, whether it's a No. 6, 8 or 10, it doesn't matter, they have to be able to play both ways."
Ertz, in turn, said that she has “been asked to do a lot more” by Andonovski than previous coaches, but she has embraced that.
"I think it's been a really fun challenge for me," she said. "I'm really excited to see where this team is going to go."
Last month, Ertz added a new line to her resume when Andonovski gave her the captain's armband for the first time in her career. She wore it in the Olympic qualifying tournament final, a 2-0 win over Canada.
Ertz has always been a vocal type on the field along with her active playing style. She admitted to being surprised to get the honor, calling herself "in that middle range of players" on the pecking order.
“I was super honored that he thought that I could wear it for that game,” she said. “I’m just thankful for the opportunity... but I don’t think a band on your arm solidifies anything.”
Perhaps it didn’t for her, but it likely did for plenty of others. If not, the only reason is that her traits as a leader were already clear. As the U.S. team evolves further under Andonovski, especially after this summer’s Olympics, don’t be surprised if we see Ertz in the role more often.