Julie Ertz, for most of 2017, has been battling for her place with the U.S. national team. Now it seems like Jill Ellis could use a few of her out there.
The 25-year-old, who brilliantly partnered with Becky Sauerbrunn in central defense en route to 2015 Women's World Cup glory, earned just one start in the Americans' first nine matches of 2017. As Ellis experimented with a 3-5-2 formation and auditioned new options at center back, Ertz found herself out of favor.
Then came her goal-scoring appearance off the bench in a dramatic 4-3 win over Brazil at the Tournament of Nations in July. A central midfielder for the NWSL's Chicago Red Stars, Ertz got the nod at that position for a 3-0 win over Japan four days later.
And that's where she started when the U.S. hosted New Zealand on Friday, scoring two goals before halftime as the Americans recorded a 3-1 victory in Commerce City, Colorado.
Ertz opened the scoring in the 16th minute, showing impressive instincts and a finisher's touch as she hammered home a Lindsey Horan header. She doubled the advantage eight minutes later, starting the buildup with intelligent circulation before making a late run to convert the rebound off Megan Rapinoe's post-ringing header.
But Ertz's performance was encouraging for reasons that range well beyond her finishing prowess. Always a vigorous tackler, she had to rein in those instincts when deployed in central defense. Now we're seeing Ertz unleashed, given freedom to run down attackers and make lunging interventions.
She also gives the U.S. the type of truly defensive presence in midfield the team hasn't seen in Ellis' three-plus years in charge. While a parade of more attack-minded midfielders have cycled through the position, from Lauren Holiday and Morgan Brian to Allie Long and Horan, Johnston offers the type of tenacity that can set up the Americans to thrive in the final third.
And, as we saw Friday, she's not half-bad when jumping into the attack herself.
Here are two more takeaways from the Americans' win over New Zealand at Dick's Sporting Goods Park:
Horan thrives in advanced midfield role
Since Horan established herself as a U.S. regular after the World Cup, it's become readily apparent she's a special talent. Where to best use that ability, however, has been more of a mystery.
Horan started in defensive midfield during Olympic qualifying in February 2016 but lost that spot to Long by the time the Summer Games rolled around. Ellis then tried giving Horan minutes up top, though that wasn't an ideal fit either.
On Friday, Ellis split the difference. Making just her third start of 2017, Horan lined up alongside Samantha Mewis in an advanced midfield role. And the 23-year-old looked right at home, using deft touches to slip out of pressure and efficiently spread the field.
When the U.S. decided to play direct, Horan proved to be a handful in the box — teeing up Ertz's opener with a knock-down header and nearly scoring one of her own just after halftime.
Competition for minutes in that position will be fierce, with Carli Lloyd, Rose Lavelle, Andi Sullivan and Brian sure to be factors once they're back at 100 percent following various injury concerns. But Horan got her chance Friday and took full advantage.
Huerta adds wrinkle to fullback competition
FIFA approved Sofia Huerta's one-time switch from Mexico to the U.S. earlier this week, and she made her debut earlier than expected when she came on in the 51st minute Friday for the injured Taylor Smith.
An attacker on the club level with Chicago, Huerta made an immediate impression at right back. Although her decision-making at the position could understandably use some polish, she held her own defensively and managed to set up Alex Morgan's insurance tally with a precise far-post service.
With veterans Ali Krieger and Meghan Klingenberg omitted from this camp, Ellis clearly is open to revamping her fullback corps. Casey Short has proven herself to be a viable option at left back and center back. Smith again looked sharp at right back Friday before her injury, expertly slipping in Mallory Pugh in the buildup to Ertz's second strike.
Now Huerta's name can also be mentioned in that conversation. While 39 minutes against New Zealand must be taken with a grain of salt, the 24-year-old is off to an encouraging start.