Even before giving birth to her son Madden last August, Julie Aerts knew she would struggle to regain the fitness and form she needed to compete in her third Women’s World Cup.
Unlike sports injuries, there is no reliable timeline for recovery from pregnancy and childbirth, nor a proven handbook for recovering athletes from life-changing events. More importantly, Aerts, who was 30 when Madden was born, wanted to carefully assess his progress before committing to his national team. He needed Aerts help to do it without attracting attention.
A group of teenage boys answered the phone.
Ertz was in Phoenix, which is her hometown and where her husband, Zach, plays tight end for the Arizona Cardinals. She reached out to the two coaches who know her best, Paul Taylor and Matt Midkiff, to guide her from preteen prodigy to college All-American champion. Taylor and Midkiff tied Aarts to Phoenix Rising, a United Soccer League club with a Major League Soccer Academy program. Aerts has arranged to begin training with the club’s under-19 team in February.
When Taylor informed his team that Julie Aerts was coming to practice, many of them met the news with blank eyes.
17-year-old Barnes said: “At first I was blown away by the star. I don’t think a lot of my teammates really knew who she was. I was the only one.”
Burns, who is determined to play at the University of Virginia, said her older sister, who is also a college soccer player, got her started watching women’s soccer at an early age. He knew his players. He knew their history and highlights. Still, he said it took him 15 minutes to muster up the courage to introduce himself to Arts during his first training session. It didn’t take long before she felt that she was better than she was.
“Even on the first day of training with her, she was the fittest of us,” Barnes said. “She was doing extra sprints after practice. She did these little things to get a little better. I realized I had to.”
Taylor said Ertz set a high bar for herself in their first conversation. If he does come back, she told him, he simply doesn’t want to go back as the player he used to be. She wanted to be better than she remembered, than anyone could remember.
“I know the expectations and standards that this team has,” Aerts said. “And I didn’t want to go into any camp if I didn’t feel like I could actually compete.”
For Aerts, that motivation came from his deep knowledge of the national team and the role he had to play to contribute at this World Cup. When she returned to training, her national team captain and defensive lynchpin Becky Sauerbrunn was struggling with her leg injury. (Sauerbrunn was eventually left out of the World Cup roster.) Midfielder Sam Mues, who played a key role in the team’s 2019 World Cup win, suffered a series of setbacks with a knee injury. endured. (Mewwis may never play elite football again.)
Without them, Aerts knew the U.S. team would need experience and tail-end leadership. She needed the glue to hold her team together.
But in February the clock was ticking. Ertz’s absence came as no surprise when USA manager Vlatko Andonovski unveiled his training camp roster for the SeeBelieves Cup. Still, Andonovsky warned, “her time is running out for her.”
As the pressure mounted, Ertz remained committed to taking things slow. She knew she needed to reach her peak performance quickly, but she also knew she couldn’t rush it.
By March, varsity staff were impressed to see Aerts play for Phoenix Rising and scrimmage. Word began to circulate within the squad that she would be back for her World Cup. Defender Kelly O’Hara, who has played with Ertz for 10 years, said she tried to contain her excitement when Ertz began to look likely to return.
“I started texting her,” O’Hara said, excitedly mimicking finger typing. She “doesn’t try to put undue pressure on her or sway her decisions. But she’s great and a great teammate, especially in a tournament like this.”
In late March, Andonovski called Aerts to their first training camp since the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. In April, Aarts returned to club football, angel city of the National Women’s Soccer League. Gradually increasing her workload and fitness, Aerts showed Andonovski her full potential and named her to the World Cup 23-man roster. A few days later, she played 97 minutes in her final game before leaving the club to attend her national team training. Her comeback is complete.
“It was competitive. That’s what you need,” Aerts said of his two months at Angel City. “We have an environment where we can grow.”
An even bigger task awaits. She and her US teammates will head to the World Cup opener in Auckland, New Zealand on Friday night (Eastern time). Madden Arts and his father will also be in the stands. Julie Ertz will probably be in the middle of the field. where she wanted to go. She’s where her team needs her.