No one wanted it more than Julie Ertz.
You could tell by the way that she carried herself throughout Sunday's National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) final. Some of her Chicago Red Stars teammates' hung heads and heavy legs signaled defeat after the team gave up three unanswered first-half goals to the North Carolina Courage. However, the 27-year-old bruiser never shied away from a slide tackle or a contended header while commanding the back line.
It's just one of the reasons why Red Stars head coach Rory Dames called her "the best player on the planet."
"I don't have enough words or enough time to generally share how special I think Julie is, both as a soccer player and as a person," Dames said. "She's the backbone of our group, she's the face of our franchise, and she has been since the day she arrived."
In the past week, Chicago fans had the pleasure of witnessing the club's greatest achievement and the heartbreak of seeing the most harrowing loss in its seven-year NWSL history. The Red Stars finally advanced to the league's title game after four consecutive years of getting knocked out in the semifinal round. But just one week later, Ertz and company marched into WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, North Carolina, looking to dethrone a juggernaut on its home turf. By all accounts, it did not go well.
Chicago struggled to feed Sam Kerr — the league's 2019 MVP and all-time leading scorer — and scrambled in the face of the Courage's punishing transition. Just four minutes into the match, title game MVP Debinha put North Carolina on the board with a quick strike, and the Red Stars' demeanor began to shift. Eventually, a stew of nerves, blistering heat, a multi-goal deficit, and frustration with the Courage's stifling defense bubbled over. That resulted in some of the team's most notable stars fighting amongst themselves in plain view of 10,227 fans at Sahlen's Stadium and hundreds of thousands more watching from home on ESPN.
But not Ertz. The US Women's National Team (USWNT) star was calm, cool, and collected throughout — barring a late-game foul that earned her a yellow card in the 67th minute. The Mesa, Arizona, native walked off the pitch with the most complete match of any player from her side and was evidently the most invested in playing the game to the final whistle.
"If you can find a better leader somewhere, I'd be happy to sit down and go point for point with them," Dames said during the postgame press conference. "She brought U20s to a World Cup championship, went through some adversity to get on the World Cup team two years ago, led the back line, made the FIFA all XI as a center back, fell out of favor after the Olympics, rolled up her sleeves, worked harder, decided to become the best six in the world, made the FIFA XI there, and then comes back and is probably playing the most minutes out of everybody in the country."
"She was by far our best player today," Dames added.
It follows, then, that Ertz was perhaps hit the hardest of all by the emotional letdown of Sunday's rout. Arguably the most famous player on her team, particularly in the United States, Ertz kept her eyes low and halfheartedly waved to the adoring crowd as she accepted her runners-up medal and walked across the stage. Her usual positive energy, bouncy step, and 1,000-watt grin were replaced by a quick pace, tight lips, and a clenched jaw.
She was even more downtrodden as she made her way past the media and through the mixed zone — an obligation required by the league for players on both sides of the draw. Wearing gray, baggy sweatpants and a black Philadelphia Eagles number 86 T-shirt — her husband's number — with a white sweatshirt tied around her waist, Ertz averted her eyes and ignored repeated requests for comments on what had gone wrong. But unlike her teammates, whose taut shoulders and cold stares betrayed an air of anger and frustration, Ertz's was one of grief.
"As I said to her after the game, with respect to the lineup, I think I'm feeling the worst for her," Dames said. "Of anybody, she deserves better than what happened today."
So when Grant Wiedenfeld — a journalist for keepernotes.com whom I met over the course of the weekend's festivities — messaged me many hours after the final whistle sounded to tell me photographer Michael J Cox had captured footage of a Dames holding Ertz as she cried after the game, I was hardly surprised.
—Michael J Cox (@Michaelcx) October 28, 2019
It was a tender moment between a coach and his player, a mastermind and his executor, a composer and his pianist, both of whom wanted more than anything else to soak in the glory of a standing ovation, but neither of whom had done enough to create a worthy symphony.
And no one wanted it more for Julie Ertz than Rory Dames.