Life, though, moves on. Her son, Madden, is 13 months old. And though she was capable of continuing to contribute on the field, Ertz was ready to walk off it.
“It’s not because Momma can’t play. Momma can play,” she said this week. “She just has adapted priorities.”
And so Thursday night in Cincinnati, in the first U.S. match since the World Cup and her retirement announcement, Ertz took the pitch in red, white and blue for the 123rd and final occasion.
Wearing the captain’s armband for the second time, she led the team onto the field. Joined by her parents, David and Kristi, and her sister Melanie, Ertz received flowers and a framed jersey. Tears flowed.
Anchoring the midfield, she played a preplanned 35 minutes before leaving to another standing ovation from the 22,016 at TQL Stadium. The United States defeated South Africa, 3-0, as Lynn Williams scored twice and Trinity Rodman added a goal, all coming before intermission.
This was just the start of teary farewells. On Sunday in Chicago, 38-year-old winger Megan Rapinoe will make her last appearance in a 17-year international career as the United States and South Africa tangle again. Unlike Ertz, Rapinoe will not hang it up for good until the National Women’s Soccer League season ends this fall.
Ertz had stepped away from soccer after the 2021 Olympics. She and her husband, Arizona Cardinals tight end Zach Ertz, were ready to start a family. Injuries were also taking a toll, and after Madden was born in August 2022, no one, including Julie, knew whether she would play again.
Early this year, after getting herself back into playing condition and engaging in deep conversations with her husband, she decided to give it another go. She rejoined the national team, signed with Angel City in the NWSL and made the World Cup squad.
With the tournament approaching, the U.S. team needed Ertz’s grit and experience. Her importance grew in the weeks before the opener when captain Becky Sauerbrunn withdrew with a foot injury.
Ertz would take Sauerbrunn’s slot in central defense, the position she filled alongside Sauerbrunn during the 2015 World Cup championship campaign before moving to defensive midfield for the successful title defense in 2019.
This World Cup turned sour quickly but not because of Ertz, who marshaled the back line with unforgiving tackles and thumping clearances. She mentored defensive partner Naomi Girma, who, at 23, was playing in her first World Cup. The Americans were eliminated in the round of 16 by Sweden, the earliest exit at a major tournament in program history.
On Thursday, that disappointment was cast aside to toast Ertz’s career and get back to work. Interim coach Twila Kilgore, a World Cup assistant, replaced Vlatko Andonovski. A permanent hire is not expected for several weeks.
For this 10-day camp, Kilgore drew primarily from the World Cup roster and invited eight others. The entire starting lineup came from the World Cup squad. Defender M.A. Vignola debuted in the second half, and Ashley Hatch, one of the last roster cuts before the World Cup, played the last 28 minutes.
On the early corner kicks, Lindsey Horan targeted Ertz, who had scored 15 of her 20 career goals off set pieces. A near-post bid streaked high, and a back-side bid was saved easily.
South Africa, which last month advanced to the World Cup round of 16 for the first time, used speed in transition to create half-chances.
In a span of less than two minutes, the Americans scored twice. A defender beat Ertz to Horan’s corner kick, but the ball flew to Williams for a close-range header and a 1-0 lead. Then, capping a quick and elegant buildup out of the U.S. end, Horan supplied Alex Morgan, who crossed to Rodman for an easy finish.
Amid the goal celebration, Ertz recognized her night — and career — was over.
“I was really excited we scored right before,” she said on TNT’s postgame show. “It just felt like a really good ending to say bye.”
There were more hugs and more tears. She removed the captain’s armband and handed it to Horan. At the sideline, she hugged her replacement, Andi Sullivan.
Williams added her second goal late in the half, using her stomach to redirect Sullivan’s corner kick that Horan had flicked through the six-yard box.
The night, though, belonged to Ertz.
“You remember all the hardest times of the sport, and in that moment, you’re like, ‘This sucks. I want this to be gone,’ ” Ertz said. “And now when you’re older, you’re like: ‘I’m so grateful for that time.’ If I just knew in that moment that I was actually in such an incredible time. You’re just like, ‘Dang, it goes by so fast.’ ”