Women's World Cup: Julie Johnston is proving her worth on the USWNT

The U.S. women's team defender is emerging as a scoring threat ahead of next month's World Cup in Canada.
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- With her third goal in three consecutive games, Julie Johnston has clearly shown she's a breakout player for the U.S. heading into the 2015 Women's World Cup.

With her uncanny ability to be in exactly the right place, and to win space on the ground and in the air, Johnston is becoming one of the more dominant players this World Cup season. Which was illustrated clearly with Johnston's toe-in goal that gave the U.S. a third over Ireland Sunday at Avaya Stadium in San Jose.

But you can't say that veteran U.S. defender Christie Rampone didn't see it coming -- that a kid named Julie Johnston out of Mesa, Arizona, was a powerhouse player capable of making big things happen, and taking Rampone's job.

Rampone, who will turn 40 when the U.S. is in Canada to try and win their first World Cup since 1999, has been sidelined from international play with injuries. The former U.S. captain is on the 23-person roster, and is vital member of the squad for her leadership, experience and skill -- Rampone is still the second-fastest player on the U.S. team. But this spring, it has been a 22-year-old defender's turn to shine.

Don't say Rampone didn't see it coming.

Three years ago, when Johnston was captaining the Under-20 U.S. women's national team during the 2012 FIFA Women's World Cup, Rampone sent the team a letter of support and encouragement. The captain of the senior women's team made an impact on Johnston, who was then a star at Santa Clara as well as the U-20 leader.

"[Christie] wrote a very sincere letter that really motivated us in the tournament, and she gave some great insight on helping to become a world champion. Her leadership really drives me to want to be a better leader," Johnston said.

Later that year, in December of 2012 when the U.S. senior team was in Arizona to play a friendly against Ireland, Johnston got to meet Rampone for the first time. Seeing the U.S. senior team play in person, Johnston said, was incredible. They play so big, she said, in awe.

"You'll be here one day," Rampone told Johnston.

"One day maybe," Johnston replied.

"Don't doubt yourself. You'll be here and I'll be watching," Rampone said.

If that was a sign that Rampone understood she'd be passing the torch to Johnston, Rampone did it with a big grin.

For all the talk about the shark-tank atmosphere that newcomers face breaking into the U.S. women's national team ranks, Rampone was eager to acknowledge that talent, skill and drive like Johnston possesses must be encouraged -- even if it means a youngster like Johnston will one day push out a veteran like Rampone.

Rampone will be going to Canada, barring some major physical setback. But Johnston has won a starting spot on defense for the U.S. With Rampone out, U.S. coach Jill Ellis has been able to get Johnston the match experience she will need to withstand the pressure cooker of a World Cup atmosphere.

"She's a weapon. She's so good in the air," Ellis said after the U.S. win over Ireland.

Johnston's star moment on Sunday came when she elevated and redirected Lauren Holiday's corner kick. Actually, the toe-in redirect was one thing. The real work -- and the real hallmark of Johnston's talent -- is her ability to anticipate and be in the right spot.

"She's so committed on her run because she gets to that post every time. She'll run through anything. She's been a great add on for us," Ellis said.

She is now one of the big guns for the U.S., who have been trying to find ways of bringing new and younger talent into the senior ranks. The new U.S. captain, midfielder Carli Lloyd, is impressed.

"Julie's a warrior back there. Even though she's one of the younger players, she's not afraid to communicate and offer guidance back there. She's taken her opportunity and seized it. She's got a good momentum going into her first major tournament with this team. She's a great asset back there," Lloyd said.

What makes it more interesting is that Johnston did not play high school soccer, and in college, she played midfield. Not that any of that mattered.

At Santa Clara University, Johnston was a standout, a three-time Hermann Trophy semifinalist, a two time First-Team All-American and the leader of the U-20 World Cup champs. In her four years at Santa Clara, Johnston led her team each year in either goals or assists before ending her collegiate career with 31 goals and 22 assists.

It's no fluke that Johnston has won the enthusiastic support Brandi Chastain, one of the 1999 Women's World Cup stars who has known Johnston for years, since Johnston played for Chastain's husband, Jerry Smith, coach of the Broncos.

Chastain was at the game in San Jose on Mother's Day, wearing a Julie Johnston No. 19 jersey. She wanted an autograph, and she wanted to crow about Johnston's importance to the U.S. side.

"Julie has scored goals from set pieces, but what she does exceptionally well and better than most players in the world is that she's got great anticipation," Chastain said.

"Julie has a great defensive awareness. She sees the space around her, she anticipates where the player on the ball is going to play it, she sets her body up in a really good position," Chastain said, adding: "She understands how the game moves and reads it better than anybody. Physically is her gift is she has incredible lateral agility. She can wait on a play and then spring into action and get to a ball that others just can't."

Johnston has all the right qualities to make her an integral part of the U.S. senior women's squad. Humble, hungry and very determined. She has sustained a three-game scoring streak that saw her notch her first goal against France in the Algarve Cup title win; the second in a 4-0 U.S. win over New Zealand in front of 35,815 fans in St. Louis and now "at home" in San Jose against Ireland.

"To be able to score and have such a great start to the send-off games is truly special, for sure," Johnston said. "It's pretty remarkable. But the services I'm getting are perfect. I'm always happy to finish them when I can. I'm just enjoying it."

She's not the only one. Ask Ellis. Ask Lloyd. Ask Chastain. Ask Rampone. They know.

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