On the way to an historic 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup win, no one silenced opposing attackers more completely than center back Julie Johnston ’14.
World Cups finals aren’t supposed to be like that. They’re almost always bite-your-nails-to-the-nub affairs until fate finally shines—think the ecstasy of Brandi Chastain ’91 in 1999—or rains down misery like the last Cup, when the U.S. team fell after twice losing leads. No one expects a 5–2 beat down.
But if the USA’s recent World Cup triumph over Japan will be forever remembered for its offensive extravaganza, the long road there was defined by suffocating defense. The Americans kept their opponents scoreless for 540 straight minutes during their run to the title. And no one silenced opposing attackers more completely than center back Julie Johnston ’14, the team’s second-youngest player who was not even on the roster when qualification games started eight months earlier.
The unlikely starter shut down attacker after attacker, few times more obviously than in the third game against Nigeria, when a breakaway striker seemed set for goal until a flying Johnston came sliding from nowhere to deflect the shot, a feat that helped the U.S. top its group and earned Johnston Player of the Match honors.
“Worth remembering that Julie Johnston was the backup to the backup at center back just four months ago,” Grant Wahl, Sports Illustrated’s main soccer writer tweeted later. “She has had a fantastic tournament.”
Not only did she play every minute of every game, one of just five U.S. players to do so, she was a finalist for the Golden Ball recognizing the tournament’s best player and one of the hottest stories for papers from the New York Times to the Wall Street Journal, which called her “the Surprise Star of the U.S.’s Surprisingly Stout Defense.” And she plays fullback, a position that is usually overshadowed when awards are bestowed.
Even Jerry Smith, head women’s soccer coach at Santa Clara who recruited Johnston from Arizona, confessed his awe: “For someone to have so few international caps and play on that stage and at that level is something I can’t remember happening before,” he said.
Smith, though, has long known Johnston was special. She began her Bronco career as the West Coast Conference’s Freshman of the Year and closed it as its Player of the Year, along the way racking up three first-team All-American honors, captaining the U.S. Under-20 national team to World Cup victory and leading SCU to its first Final Eight in 7 years. Her senior year she was drafted by the Chicago Red Stars, where she won Rookie of the Year honors.
Her potential to reach the top was obvious, even if how quickly it happened is stunning. “Her skills alone set her apart from the good players,” Chastain said before Johnston’s senior year. “But her mental fortitude and vision for the game take her to the next level. If she continues on the way of hard work and attention to detail, she will be a force to be reckoned with.” Chastain saw Johnston’s performance up close, as an assistant coach for the Broncos.
Johnston was just 7 years old, and one of millions watching on television, when Chastain buried the ball in the net for the American team’s last World Cup victory. That moment helped bring Johnston to the Mission Campus. “When I came on my recruiting visit and met Brandi, it seemed insane,” she said years later.
A generation on, the two share membership in the most elite club in soccer—arguably sport’s biggest stage on the planet.
Read a profile of Johnston, as well as former SCU teammate Sofie Huerta ’15, on espnW. And check out other pieces by Sam Scott '96 on Johnston and both Johnston and Huerta appearing previously in Santa Clara Magazine. If that isn't enough, browse through our archives of all things SCU soccer.
SCU writer Harold Gutmann contributed to this report.