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Call Her a World Champion

Call Her a World Champion

By Ann Killion

View full image. Photography by Maddie Meyer / Getty Images
And call them America’s Team. Defender Julie Johnston ’14 and the Women’s World Cup.

Draw a straight line through the history of women’s sports, and at two of the most significant points your graph will intersect with Santa Clara University. First in 1999, when Bronco Brandi Chastain ’91 fired the winning penalty kick into the back of the net and the United States women’s soccer team became world champions. And then this past summer, Julie Johnston ’14, the second-youngest player on the U.S. team, anchored the defense and helped lead the American women to another world championship.

Just as it did 16 years earlier, the latest American run to a world title shattered television ratings records and drew rabid crowds and huge media attention. Both World Cups were watershed moments for women’s sports. Both also proved the popularity and marketing power of female athletes. And this summer’s tournament held in Canada proved that the U.S. women’s soccer team—more than any other group in sports—is truly America’s Team. Its popularity is just as strong now as it was when Chastain, Mia Hamm, and Julie Foudy took the field.

America feels an ownership with this group. As does Santa Clara. And why not?

“That’s the coolest thing about being at Santa Clara,” says Johnston, 23. “There are all those connections to the people who came before.”

Get to the national team, Johnston says, and “we all have different stories, but we all have the same passion to win and proudly represent our country.” 

METEORIC

Johnston is the newest star on the country’s most popular team. Her rise from young unknown to indispensible stopper was meteoric. And she really had no way to prepare for the experience or how it would shape her.

Backline might: the World Cup final against Japan. Photo by Steven Limentani/ISIPhotos

“The entire time, until the actual World Cup, I didn’t think I was going to start,” Johnston says.

Johnston grew up in Arizona. She watched the 1999 World Cup as a 7-year-old. She dreamed of playing in a World Cup herself.

“When I dreamed about it, I would think about playing in the World Cup final, about winning and being part of a team,” she says. “You don’t think about everything we go through to get there.”

What about once she was there?

“It was better than I imagined. It was so real. So raw.”

Winning a World Cup takes a toughness and a force of will that few young players have honed. But Johnston learned it early. Her father, David, played football at Louisiana State University and told her, when she was 9 years old, that she couldn’t play soccer if she was going to cry every time she got knocked down. So no more crying.

While she was in high school, she visited Santa Clara on a recruiting visit. She fell in love with the place the moment she stepped on the Mission Campus. She went on to star for the Broncos. She was named the WCC Freshman of the Year in her first season and the WCC Player of the Year in her final season, 2014. She was a first-team All-American, a semifinalist for the Hermann Trophy—awarded to the top collegiate player in the game—and led the Broncos to the Sweet Sixteen in her senior year.

She played most of her collegiate games at forward or at midfield. But during her sophomore year, coach Jerry Smith decided to try Johnston on defense, at center back. Johnston was originally reluctant, afraid the move would restrict the team’s offensive firepower and would ultimately hurt.

She turned out to be a versatile and intelligent defender. And when she was trying out for the U-20 World Cup team, Smith suggested to coach Steve Swanson that he give Johnston a look on the backline, where the team needed help. Johnston played every minute there, was named the team captain, and received the Bronze Ball for the tournament as the third-best player at the World Cup. She was named the United States’ best young female player of the year.

After the U-20 tournament, Christie Rampone—the longtime center back and captain on the premier team—told Johnston, “You’ll be here.”

Johnston laughed.

“I just wanted to do my best,” she says.

She knew she couldn’t assume anything about making the top team. All the accolades earned at the younger levels mean nothing when it comes to making the national team.

She earned her first “cap”—her first appearance—with the U.S. women’s team in 2013 while still in school. After graduating from Santa Clara, she was drafted by the Chicago Red Stars of the National Women’s Soccer League.

But she wasn’t getting much love from Jill Ellis, who had been named the new coach of the national team in April 2014. When Ellis selected her roster for World Cup qualifying, Johnston was left off. She was devastated at being rejected from what was basically the prolonged tryout for the World Cup team.

In retrospect, Johnston says, “I don’t think I really understood what it took to be at that level. I wasn’t a professional yet. I needed to grow up, to push myself harder.”

When another player was injured, Johnston ended up being named to the team as a replacement. But she didn’t play in the qualifying games. Determined to push herself harder, she tried new things. During the fall and winter of 2014, she stayed in Philadelphia to support her boyfriend, former Stanford football tight end Zach Ertz, who plays for the Eagles. She began training in nearby New Jersey with national team star Carli Lloyd and Lloyd’s trainer, James Galanis.

Lloyd has long credited Galanis with helping turn around her game and confidence. Johnston received some of the same benefits, including a desire to seize the moment.  Galanis encouraged her to stop viewing herself as merely a youngster who was being groomed for the future. Instead, she needed to see herself as a player who could contribute right now.

“I’d say I was a mentally strong player, but when you get to another level, you find these insecurities that overtake your thoughts,” Johnston told USA Today. “He allowed me to feel so prepared and enjoy why I was here.”

LIFE AND LIMB

In March 2015, the U.S. women’s national team traveled to Portugal for the annual Algarve Cup tournament. Rampone was out with an injury. Johnston got her chance. She started three of the four games, scored a goal in the final over France, and clearly sent the message: I deserve to be here.

Johnston was West Coast Conference Freshman of the Year—and, as a senior, Player of the Year. Photo by Denis Concordel

Ellis, her coach, saw it, too. She said, “Now I know the moment won’t get too big for her … You could see she is a warrior. She sacrifices life and limb. Those intangibles caught my eye.”

Johnston had a homecoming of sorts when the team traveled to the Bay Area in May for a friendly against Ireland played in Avaya Stadium. The U.S. women won 3–0. That tally included a second-half goal by Johnston, marking the third game in a row that she’d scored. Though not in so many words, Ellis told the media before the game that Johnston had locked down a spot.

Still, Johnston was skeptical. As she put it, “That’s what the media said she said. I didn’t hear it that way … My career started with injuries to others. I just had to be ready to play.”

She described the entire experience as “fighting and fighting and fighting for a spot.” When she finally earned the spot, she was more than ready.

In Canada, she anchored the backline that became the strength of the team. As the Americans struggled to score early in the World Cup, they faced increasing criticism and skepticism back at home. But thanks to the defensive efforts of Johnston, Becky Sauerbrunn, Meghan Klingenberg, and Ali Krieger—along with goalkeeper Hope Solo behind them—they stayed in every game. After giving up a goal in the opening game against Australia, they never allowed another through group play and into the knockout rounds as they headed for the final.

For those unfamiliar with the newcomer on the team, the sight of Johnston’s distinctive platinum ponytail bobbing on the backline soon became a visual security blanket. She cleared balls, shut down forwards, sprinted up to the opponent’s goal on set pieces—her white-blond hair and bright, wide headband making an excellent target. In short, Johnston was everywhere: physical, confident, and helping the defense keep the team in contention.

She never felt too young but rather an integral part of the unit.

“I felt a connection with the other players on the backline from the beginning,” Johnston says. “We held each other accountable. We had each other’s back.”

That was particularly important in the semifinal game against Germany, a two-time World Cup champion and the team expected to contend for the title. In the 59th minute of the scoreless game, Johnston pulled down midfielder Alexandra Popp inside the box. She earned a yellow card, and Germany earned a penalty kick. Johnston was clearly beside herself on the field.

It was “one of a defender’s worst nightmares,” Johnston said later. “The emotion. Just the possibility that I hurt my team, and it was on my shoulders.”

But her teammates rallied around her on the field. And, in a stunning development, Celia Sasic pulled the penalty kick wide, the first penalty kick miss in Germany’s history at the Women’s World Cup. The Americans went on to win 2–0 to advance to the final. Johnston was still teary talking to reporters after the game.

But by the final against Japan in Vancouver, she was back to being the confident, composed player. The high white-blond ponytail was again a talisman of defensive prowess. The team throttled Japan, though the defense’s scoreless streak of 513 minutes without allowing a goal was snapped in the second half. The United States won its first World Cup since 1999, beating Japan 5–2.

The American youngster ended up on the short list for the tournament’s highest honor, the Golden Ball, evidence of how highly regarded Johnston was during the World Cup. Lloyd received the honor, but Johnston’s ability with the ball both at her feet and on her head—and her toughness and savvy—offered one of the eye-opening performances of the World Cup. She drew rave reviews from veterans like Solo, Lloyd, and Abby Wambach for her poise and ability on the field.

Smith had confidence in her, too—but he knows how essential experience is to playing at the highest level. “It was really almost unprecedented for someone to have so few caps and go on to become such an integral part of a World Cup winning team,” he says. “To do as well as she did was really remarkable.”

The entire experience was remarkable. Hordes of Americans, many driving campers and making a summer vacation out of it, flowed across the border to Canada to see the games. The crowds were intensely pro-American. Everywhere you looked fans were wearing USA jerseys—including Johnston’s boyfriend, Ertz, who headed to Canada after Eagles minicamp and proudly donned a No. 19 jersey.

“There’s something so beautiful about representing your country,” Johnston says. “When all the States can come together and root for the same team, I could really feel that sense of pride."

"So much of our motivation came from fans. Every stadium felt like a home-field advantage. It was unbelievable.”

The final game drew an audience of 25.4 million viewers, smashing the previous record as the most watched soccer game—male or female—in the history of the United States. The viewership was larger than the deciding game of the NBA Finals and Game 7 of the previous World Series.

The adulation continued through the summer.

“I’ve never had fan mail before,” Johnston says. “I try to answer some every day.”

Smith saw Johnston in late August, when the Broncos swung through the Midwest for games against Notre Dame and Northwestern. He has coached many of the national team players at various levels and has tracked their development over the years. And he notes that most young players first experience the biggest tournament in the world as a substitute.

“Most players barely play in their first World Cup,” Smith says. As for Johnston, “She didn’t have any of that. I’m sure it’s been overwhelming.” 

Next stop—Rio?

After the World Cup victory, Johnston returned to the Chicago Red Stars and saw a tremendous bump in attendance. Games were sold out, autograph lines were longer. Her team finished ranked second in the league and made its first postseason run in September, falling to FC Kansas City.

First pitch: at a Cubs game at Wrigley Field. Johnston plays for the Chicago Red Stars. Photo from Getty Images

Johnston also played on the U.S. national team’s “victory tour.” In games against Costa Rica and Haiti, they played in front of more than 44,000 in Pittsburgh, then in front of more than 20,000 in Chattanooga, 34,000 in Detroit, and more than 35,000 in Birmingham.

“It’s so cool to see,” Johnston says of the crowds. “It’s so great to see the sport continuing to grow.” For fans, it was also cool to see Johnston score in the first minute of the Birmingham game.

This is a special year for the national soccer team. Unlike the men, the women have only one calendar year between the World Cup and the Olympics. (And unlike the men, the women’s Olympic soccer competition is for the senior national teams, not U-23 teams.) Through next August, the team will have an extremely high profile, before the cycle begins again.

That means Johnston is going to be getting a lot more fan mail and exposure over the next several months as the Americans buckle down and prepare for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

“When do you turn the page from the World Cup and get everyone focused for the Olympics?” Johnston wonders. “The Road to Rio is here, and everyone wants to continue to get better and reach for new goals.”

Johnston splits her time between Chicago, Philadelphia with Ertz, Arizona with her parents, and sometimes California. One night at her base in the Windy City, she couldn’t sleep. So she watched Dare to Dream, the documentary about the ’99ers.

“It was so awesome to see what they started and to be a part of it,” she says.

And, she added, to be a part of the school so intimately connected to the biggest moments in women’s sports. To carry the Santa Clara flag onto the field in women’s soccer’s biggest games.

“To have Julie and Brandi play such key roles in both championships is something I take pride in,” Smith says. “It’s a real feather in the cap for the program.”

Smith, who has been married to Chastain since 1996, knows how intense the competition is among collegiate soccer programs to land the top talent.

“I feel lucky that Brandi decided to come to Santa Clara, that Julie decided to come here,” he says. “When players choose to come here, we feel a responsibility about shaping their future and preparing them for the big moment. Not just with wins, or just in soccer, but to give them the skills they need for a greater chance of success going forward.

“I feel like we did our job.”

One way to look at it: Santa Clara did its job with Johnston. And Johnston did her job with the national team.
And life is different now.

“I guess,” Johnston says, “I can always call myself a world champion.”


ANN KILLION has covered Bay Area sports for more than a quarter century. A staff writer at the San Francisco Chronicle, she is an award-winning columnist and a veteran of the past 10 Olympics, several World Cups, and the Tour de France. She was named the 2014 California Sportswriter of the Year.

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