Her chance to shine

Julie John­ston, vir­tu­ally un­known months ago, has been es­sen­tial to U.S. suc­cess thus far at the World Cup

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - By Kevin Bax­ter kevin.bax­ter@latimes.com Twit­ter: @kbax­ter11

U.S. de­fender Julie John­ston is liv­ing her dream, go­ing from anonymity to ac­claim.

ED­MON­TON, Canada — A lit­tle more than four months ago, Julie John­ston was among the most anony­mous play­ers on the U.S. na­tional soc­cer team, with a ca­reer re­sume that con­sisted of just one start.

But in this Women’s World Cup, she played ev­ery minute of the Amer­i­cans’ three group-play games — and was ar­guably the team’s best player for most of those min­utes.

Yet the tran­si­tion from anonymity to ac­claim has hap­pened so quickly even the 23-year-old John­ston couldn’t keep up.

“To hear the fans cheer­ing your name, that’s re­ally shock­ing,” she said. “I’m like, ‘Wait, how do you know my name?’ It’s def­i­nitely dif­fer­ent than where I was a year ago.”

Back then she was with the Chicago Red Stars of the Na­tional Women’s Soc­cer League, whose home at­ten­dance was less than 36,000 for the sea­son. The U.S. drew more than that in its last game.

And dur­ing the last Women’s World Cup, John­ston was on the sofa with her dog, watch­ing the games on TV.

“There’s just mo­ments where I’m like, ‘ Wow, I’m pass­ing the ball with Abby [Wam­bach],’ ” she said of the change. “I don’t think I’d ever tell them that be­cause they’d prob­a­bly make fun of me. “But it’s pretty cool.” There is one per­son who saw all this com­ing, though. In the fall of 2012, U.S. cap­tain Christie Ram­pone met with John­ston dur­ing a train­ing ses­sion in Ari­zona. Nod­ding to­ward the field, Ram­pone told her, “You’ll be here. Don’t doubt your­self.”

John­ston didn’t just take Ram­pone’s ad­vice; she also took her job in cen­tral de­fense. When a back in­jury sent Ram­pone to the side- lines last win­ter, it opened the door for John­ston, who seized the op­por­tu­nity.

Yet Ram­pone, a sub for the first time in 15 years, re­mains John­ston’s big­gest cheer­leader and men­tor.

“She’s done a tremen­dous job with only play­ing so many games and then step­ping into a World Cup and be­ing on a big stage,” said Ram­pone, 39. who is play­ing in her fifth world cham­pi­onship. “She just brings that energy and pres­ence that we need.

“I’ve seen her grow even from her first [train­ing] camp.”

In Canada, John­ston has an­chored a young back line that has al­lowed just one goal — none in its last 243 min­utes. In the 1-0 win over Nige­ria that gave the U.S. the group ti­tle, John­ston was named the player of the game af­ter twice mak­ing out­stand­ing plays that may have saved goals.

“For a young player, she shows a lot of poise,” U.S. Coach Jill El­lis said of John­ston. “She’s tough. And her tim­ing is ex­cel­lent.”

Yet de­spite John­ston’s wide-eyed won­der, none of this hap­pened by sur­prise. The road to a start­ing spot on the na­tional team is one John­ston has been fol­low­ing for some time now.

In col­lege at Santa Clara, where she played ev­ery po­si­tion but goal­keeper, John­ston made three All-Amer­ica teams and was twice a semi­fi­nal­ist for the MAC Her­mann Tro­phy, soc­cer’s ver­sion of the Heis­man. As a ju­nior, she also cap­tained a U.S. ju­nior team to the un­der-20 World Cup ti­tle in 2012, where she was the only de­fender cho­sen as one of the tour­na­ment’s top three play­ers.

Then last sum­mer, she was named the NWSL’s rookie of the year.

But while John­ston came into the World Cup year with some­thing of a pedi­gree, she also came in with just five U.S. na­tional team ap­pear­ances. Ram­pone’s in­jury changed that.

“She’s been a tremen­dous player in our youth sys­tem and been very, very solid,” El­lis said of John­ston. “Op- por­tu­nity pre­sented it­self with some in­juries, so now she’s get­ting started in big games. And she’s risen to the level.”

Pool play at this World Cup has pro­vided a kind of fin­ish­ing school then — and not just for John­ston but for Meghan Klin­gen­berg and Becky Sauer­brunn as well, since the three start­ing de­fend­ers came to Canada with just one match of World Cup ex­pe­ri­ence com­bined. With the U.S. hav­ing been drawn into the tour­na­ment’s “group of death,” with two other top-10 teams in Swe­den and Aus­tralia, plus Nige­ria, a nine-time African cham­pion, the de­fen­sive trio was bap­tized un­der fire.

“There’s not a back line in the world that wouldn’t be tested in this group, with just the pace and tran­si­tion of these teams,” El­lis said. “We just talked about how bat­tletested we are com­ing out of that. [And] how con­fi­dent we should feel in our back line.

“Our young­sters have been tremen­dous.”

John­ston typ­i­cally de­flects such praise by mum­bling cliches about team­work and just do­ing her job. But then she steps back, pinches her­self and re­mem­bers that she’s in the World Cup, a place where ev­ery­body knows her name.

“I al­ways was like, ‘ Oh yeah, that would be so cool to be in the World Cup.’ But ... I don’t think I was ever con­vinced that it was a pos­si­bil­ity for me,” she said. “Some days when I kind of ref lect and just think about what’s hap­pened in the past four years, it’s pretty amaz­ing to be team­mates with play­ers that you idol­ized.

“I’m still try­ing to fig­ure it out. I’m just try­ing to em­brace the mo­ment. I’m just try­ing to take it all in and en­joy the jour­ney.”

Darryl Dyck As­so­ci­ated Press

JULIE JOHN­STON has an­chored a young back line that has al­lowed just one goal in Canada. In the 1-0 win over Nige­ria that gave the U.S. the group ti­tle, John­ston was named the player of the game.

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