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Dispatches from the present


More than Trophies


When U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team stalwart Julie Ertz (“JJ”) announced her retirement after their loss to Sweden in the Round of 16 at this year’s World Cup, it gutted me more than the loss itself. In the waning minutes of the game’s extra time, with the score still 0-0, Ertz charged down the field from her center back position to create another passing lane for her teammate, knocking over the Swedish player who stood in her way instead of pivoting away from her. That’s the JJ way. Few are as gritty, determined, versatile and fierce as she is. For years, I’ve watched her with admiration—perhaps because my own athletic career was also marked by constant position switches; perhaps because I too have always been praised for my work ethic rather than for my skills; perhaps because I’ve learned by watching her play, speak, lead that a person’s work ethic is what separates the good from the great.

No one would call Ertz the most talented, or the fastest, or the most technically skilled. She hasn’t racked up the same accolades or recognition as her contemporaries Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe. She hasn’t scored the most dazzling goals, though some of her headers have indeed been dazzling. She isn’t the most outspoken player or the one the media will turn to first for an interview. But she is the best at analyzing and breaking down opposing attacks. She can seamlessly transition from a center midfield to a center back position without missing a beat, which she had to do at this World Cup after Becky Sauerbrunn, the USWNT’s longstanding center back, was ruled out with a foot injury. She rarely loses 50/50 balls. She is almost never beat on a 1v1. When you watch Ertz charge down the field or charge down an opposing forward or order her teammates to mark a player, you see fire and tenacity embodied. You see fearlessness. Nothing—not fighting for a 2023 World Cup roster spot only ten months after giving birth or playing at the Tokyo Olympics with an MCL injury, not a speedy forward or threatening counterattack, not a coach asking too much of her or the responsibility to lead a backline with two World Cup first-timers—holds her back.

When I was young, my dream was to play for the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team while also becoming the first female president of the U.S. Like so many other female athletes of my generation, Ertz included, the 1999 Women’s World Cup had marked a cultural and ideological shift: we could be powerful athletes who stormed down previously restricted paths with fire and tenacity—even if we still had to face sneers that we would never be as strong, talented or valuable as our male counterparts. I quickly turned into the teammate who yelled at others to get off their butts when they were picking the grass in the middle of a game instead of running down the field to receive my passes, and at coaches who insisted the game ended in a tie when I knew we had won 6-2 because I kept count.

Ertz exemplifies the qualities women athletes cannot succeed without. Skill will only take you so far in a game where you’re fighting not just the opposition on the field but the opposition in the stands, within your country’s federation, within your club system, within the media. Almost every team at the World Cup competed without a star player or five because of (mostly knee) injuries, calling into question the conditions women’s players are forced to operate within. Jamaica’s team, which in a major upset made it to the Round of 16, had to set up a GoFundMe to pay for their trip to the World Cup. Spain was forced to play for abusive coach Jorge Vilda and for a federation that essentially gave players the middle finger by exclaiming “Vilda in!” on social media after their championship victory, seemingly justifying their decision to turn a blind eye on allegations against him and suggesting that Vilda’s contract will be renewed. (And then defended their federation’s president when he forcibly kissed a player on the lips on the medal podium. Players and coaches around the globe have since called for his resignation.) The Women’s World Cup prize money is still just one-third of the men’s, even though viewership at this year’s competition broke global records.

As Tobin Heath, two-time World Cup champion for the USWNT, put it about Spain, who had been praised for their passing game throughout the tournament: “What’s winning is not them passing the ball”—rather, it’s “capitalizing on chances, belief coming from behind, knowing that you deserve to be there, that you deserve to win, that you have everything to win.” The same could be said for Zambia, Morocco, South Africa, Colombia and Jamaica, who all upset soccer powerhouses and kept Germany (world-ranked #2), Brazil, and defending Olympic gold medalists Canada from advancing to the knockout rounds. Or for Spain’s rising-star Salma Paralluelo, the first player, male or female, to win gold at the U-17, U-20, and senior World Cups. Or for England’s manager Sarina Wiegman, the only head coach, male or female, to lead two different nations (the Netherlands and England) to victory at the Euro Championships and to World Cup finals.

Women’s sports are about more than trophies because they have to be. Women athletes and coaches can’t only focus on winning, on the game itself, because they’re still fighting for safe playing conditions, adequate support staff, equal pay, federations that see maternity leave as maternity leave rather than as an opportunity to clear their rosters, federations that invest in youth development, coaches who take mental health struggles seriously, coaches who don’t force players to play through potentially career-ending injuries, media outlets that ask if the resources are in place to ensure the USWNT’s continued dominance rather than questioning the team’s “grit.” The only option for women athletes is excellence because even the smallest misstep is scrutinized, every poor performance an opportunity for the haters to hate harder and the supporters to question their support. Even the smallest mistakes are chances for the men in charge to say see, you don’t deserve the same treatment as the men, for the federations to not take their complaints seriously. That’s why fire and tenacity, an incomparable work ethic, are what win in women’s sports—that’s why I couldn’t stop watching Julie Ertz all these years.

After her retirement announcement, I watched compilations of Ertz’s best plays on YouTube. Eventually the algorithm led me to highlights from the USWNT’s 2020 SheBelieves Cup game against Spain. Nearly every frame featured Ertz. The game tied 0-0, Spain hits the post on a shot. U.S. defender Abby Dahlkemper clears it to the feet of a Spanish player, whose first touch is picked up by Ertz. She charges down the field, past three defenders, and cleanly passes it to forward Lynn Williams, who then passes it to fellow forward Carli Lloyd for a shot that goes wide. Then, in the game’s 86th minute, the score still tied 0-0, the U.S. earns a free kick. Ertz pushes past several defenders to connect with forward Christen Press’s service at the near post—and scores on a header. That’s what it takes to win.

Photo credit: Jamie Smed (CC / BY 2.0)