In 2012, Julie Johnston won the Bronze Ball in the U-20 Women’s World Cup. On Thursday, it was announced that she would have the chance to turn that Bronze Ball into a golden one.
The 22-year-old has been the breakout star of the 2015 Women’s World Cup for her work on the U.S. Women’s National Team‘s back line. She has played a critical role in the U.S. keeping a clean sheet for 513 straight minutes in the tournament. While the entire U.S. defense has had several standout performances, it is the young Johnston, whose stock has risen the most this past month, who has been catching everyone’s attention. And now today she has the opportunity to win the Golden Ball trophy, an honor given to the best player of the tournament.
Johnston is one of the most promising young prospects the U.S. has had in the last decade, but it took almost two years for her to break into the national team.
The Arizona native was used primarily in the midfield at Santa Clara University. In her four years as a Bronco, Johnston led her team each year in either goals or assists. She left Santa Clara with 31 goals, 22 assists (86 overall points) and a long list of accolades.
She was a three-time Hermann Trophy semifinalist, a two-time First-Team All-American and one of Glamour magazine’s Top Ten College Women in 2013.
Her collegiate career was highlighted in 2012 where she captained that U-20 Women’s World Cup team to a championship and picked up the tournament’s Bronze Ball (a rarity for a defender to receive that kind of recognition in a major tournament). Later that year, U.S. Soccer named Johnston its Young Female Athlete of the Year.
In an interview with Bleacher Report, Brandi Chastain, former USWNT defender and assistant coach at Santa Clara, said that she holds Johnston in the “highest esteem.”
“She’s the kind of player the U.S. needs. She can be physically dominant in the air, on the ground, in a tackle, she’s hard, she’s strong, but she’s also skillful like Tobin Heath. She’s got great composure on the ball, she loves playing under pressure, and that is not something that’s been that prevalent on the national team for a while,” said Chastain.
As her days as a Bronco came to an end, Johnston made the transition to a professional career in the NWSL with the Chicago Red Stars, where she was taken third overall in the 2014 draft.
For the Red Stars, drafting Johnston has been one of their most important and valuable player signings in three NWSL seasons. While Red Stars Head Coach Rory Dames initially talked about playing Johnston in her natural position as a holding midfielder, her versatility allowed her to fill the role of center back for her new team.
“Julie was the driving force behind the (2012 U-20 World Cup winning) team,” Red Star coach Rory Dames said in piece on The Equalizer. “And she has shown throughout her college days that she can play anywhere on the field and play well at any position.”
She started her professional career with a goal in her debut game before proceeding to play in 21 matches for the Red Stars. Her offensive productivity tapered off from her college days; she managed 2 goals and 2 assists in 2014, but it was her defensive abilities that paved the way for her to earn that season’s Rookie of the Year award.
In 2013, she received her first cap with the senior team but the 107 minutes she played that year felt like nothing more then an obligatory attempt to expand the U.S. player pool. Her minutes did not feel validated by real opportunities to make an impact with the full team. Despite impressive performances with the Red Stars, Johnston found a difficult time cracking a spot with the full squad.
For nearly a year, she was left off the national team roster, even failing to make the cut for the 2014 U.S. CONCACAF Women’s Championship, the prelude to the World Cup. She would eventually replace an injured Crystal Dunn just days before the tournament but never suited up for the red, white and blue.
Towards the end of 2014, Johnston started to scrap together minutes as a utility player on the backline and in the midfield, but once again her minutes were not allowing her to earn significant experience or a fighting chance as a starter on the backline.
That changed in the 2015 Algarve Cup. The U.S. headed into 2015 with a revolving door of defenders as Head Coach Jill Ellis struggled to string together a reliable back line. The U.S. was in a constant flux of trying to find healthy players that could provide consistent performances.
In that tournament, Johnston was able to play substantial minutes for the national team. She started three of the team’s four games and made the game-winning goal against France to secure the U.S.’s 10th Algarve title.
She had finally been given her chance, and she capitalized in a big way.
SEE MORE — Meet the 23 players on the US squad at Women’s World Cup (videos).
“She’s had an amazing tournament,” Ellis said at the tournament’s conclusion. “Opportunity has knocked, and she’s responded really well. It makes our job hard but in a way makes our job easy because we’ve got great depth at that position and now she’s gained experience she didn’t have in these games.”
Her performance in the Algarve was not a one and done deal. She returned to the U.S. in a pair of friendlies where she continued to start on the backline and add two more goals.
Her play in those two months left no room for doubt that despite a mere 13 caps (fewest of any field player), she would be a starting center back in the World Cup.
She has played every minute of the tournament thus far and is one game away from a World Cup title at 23 years old. The opportunistic Johnston has shown maturity, composure and veteran-like experience well beyond her years in this tournament — even earning recognition as Player of the Match in the U.S.’s last group game against Nigeria.
The U.S. defense has virtually proven that defense wins championships and the partnership of Becky Sauerbrunn and Johnston has provided reliability in the face of so much offensive inconsistency. They have made themselves a dynamic duo as two of the most complete defenders the U.S. has had in recent years.
These past six months have only given us a small glimpse into the type of player we will be seeing in Johnston for years to come. She has the potential to become a core player and a vital piece for the U.S, and in the distance it is not hard to imagine a captain’s armband for this defender.
While playing in the U-20 Women’s World Cup, Johnston received a letter expressing words of encouragement from U.S. Captain Christie Rampone. Later that year when the U.S. was playing in her home state, Johnston was able to sit and talk with Rampone in an exchange that felt like the torch was being passed.
Rampone knew then what we are seeing now.
“Don’t doubt yourself, you’ll be here and I’ll be watching,” Rampone said.
Well now the world is watching — watching today when the Johnston and the U.S. take on Japan in the final of the Women’s World Cup and eagerly watching to see what else this young defender will bring to the U.S. team.
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