On the occasion of her final game in a U.S. women's national team jersey, Julie Ertz had kept her emotions in check. Mostly. But a postgame montage of her career and a speech to the crowd proved to be too much. The tears flowed, showing the passion that defined Ertz's career.
"To every girl out there who dreams to be here, it's worth it," she said as she addressed the crowd at Cincinnati's TQL Stadium after the game. "Every part of it."
The U.S. prevailed over South Africa 3-0 on Thursday, thanks to a 10-minute stretch in the first half that saw Lynn Williams score a pair of goals and Trinity Rodman add another. The win didn't amount to a complete catharsis following a hugely disappointing 2023 Women's World Cup that saw the earliest U.S. exit from a World Cup in the history of the program. That recovery will require many more pages to be turned, not to mention the hiring of a new manager.
Ertz's international finale added a feel-good element to the occasion, though. Even as the U.S. cruised to victory, this match was all about celebrating one of the finest defensive players to ever suit up for the USWNT. Ertz will finish with 123 international appearances, 20 goals and a pair of World Cup titles.
Yet Ertz meant more to the U.S. than mere numbers could ever convey. She has long been one of the team's emotional leaders, playing with a physical edge that made it near impossible for opponents to break through. Her absence from the USWNT following the birth of her son, Madden, last August was keenly felt.
It was telling that during her prematch news conference, Ertz said "competing and winning" were what she would miss the most after she retires. That attitude isn't as easy to replace as it sounds.
Her play at the 2023 World Cup -- leading a back line that conceded just once in the entire tournament -- was so stellar that she could have easily carried on to the Olympics, set to begin in 10 months. But family life with Madden and her husband, Zach Ertz, beckons. She will have no regrets, and this night was everything she hoped it would be.
"Really excited that we scored kind of right before [I was subbed]. It just felt like a really good ending to say bye," Ertz said on the TNT postgame show. "I've always known I loved the sport, and in that moment, the 35 minutes left that I was blessed to have, I just could just feel it. I could feel how much I loved it. I'm so grateful."
It was a night when U.S. interim manager Twila Kilgore did what she could to set the table for the defensive mainstay to score, allowing Ertz to move high up the field in an advanced midfield role. Ertz's teammates did their best as well to get her on the scoresheet, finding her on a pair of set piece opportunities in the first half. Ertz sent one header over the bar and another that was saved comfortably by South Africa goalkeeper Kaylin Swart.
To Ertz, the scoreline mattered more.
"At the end of the day, it's about the wins," Ertz said. "Of course, I would've loved to score. Who wouldn't? But at the end of the day, it was just so fun to be out there, play so free and play one last time."
ESPN FC's Jeff Carlisle reacts to the news that Julie Ertz is calling time on her soccer career.
After the first two U.S. goals from Williams and Rodman -- the second of which saw Ertz involved in the buildup -- it was time for Ertz to come off, making way for Andi Sullivan in the 36th minute. The announced crowd of 22,016 roared. One fan's sign said: "Ertz To Say Goodbye." Ertz blew kisses in response, and struggling with her emotions, she managed to make it to the sideline. When the players gathered to watch the postmatch video dedicated to Ertz, that was another matter.
It certainly was on brand for Ertz to let the tears flow. She cried back in 2018 when she was told that Zach Ertz reached the Super Bowl with the Philadelphia Eagles, which they later won. She shed tears when she read aloud a supportive note from her husband ahead of the 2023 World Cup. She even cried during the 2015 Women's World Cup semifinal against Germany when she conceded a penalty. The subsequent spot kick was missed, leading teammate Carli Lloyd, blunt as ever, to tell her, "There's no time for tears. We have a game to play!" Ertz regained her composure and the U.S. won 2-0.
No one minded then, and fans and teammates alike showed their appreciation on this night. Ertz did teeter on the edge of her emotions during the pregame intros and national anthem, struggling to hold back the tears. But when it came time for the pregame pep talk, Ertz was back to her intense but composed self.
That Ertz would show that intensity right to the end wasn't a surprise. It's fair to say no USWNT player was more prepared, and she never took a play off.
"She directs people every second, every moment on the field," Williams told TNT at halftime. "She just shows by her work rate and her dedication to the game. We joke about it in the camp, but she's always holding an iPad and always studying, always learning.
"Even this morning she was doing it and we were like, 'Julie, you're retiring. It doesn't matter anymore.' But just her preparation, her dedication, and her willingness to put everything on the line for us, it's incredible."
Such is the nature of the international game that when one player departs, another enters. On this night it was Angel City left back M.A. Vignola making her international debut in her hometown. With retiring Megan Rapinoe slated to play her last match on Sunday, other players like Jaedyn Shaw will surely follow. The likes of Alyssa Thompson and Rodman figure to play increasing roles.
But for one night at least, it was time to celebrate a USWNT legend. Ertz has earned every plaudit and deserves the contentment that retirement and family life will hopefully bring.