by Paul Kennedy

Of all the players on the U.S. women's national team over the last decade, one was indispensable.

As the USA won and defended Women's World Cup titles in 2015 and 2019, Julie Ertz was the rock.

She started at center back in 2015 but then returned to her natural position in central midfield, where her play made her one of the best players in the world.

She returned from giving birth to her first child, a boy named Madden, to start again on the USA's 2023 World Cup team less than a year later.

The USA exited in the round of 16 to Sweden -- the earliest elimination in the history of the program -- but not because of any problems with Ertz, who returned to center back. It conceded just one goal and two shots on goal in four games.

The Sweden match was the last game of Ertz's pro career.

On Thursday, she announced that she's retiring from pro soccer at the age of 31.

Ertz was ever-present over the last three World Cups, the only player who started all 17 matches. The USA went 13-0-4 during that span with 11 shutouts.

She was recognized by being named the U.S. Soccer Female Player of the Year in 2017 and 2019. She is one of just five players to win both the U.S. Soccer Female Player of the Year and U.S. Soccer Young Female Player of the Year awards. She won the latter in 2012 when she led the USA to its third U-20 Women's World Cup title.

Ertz grew up in Arizona, where she played for Sereno Soccer Club, and starred at Santa Clara University. She played 101 NWSL games in seven seasons with the Chicago Red Stars and seven with Angel City FC after her return this season.

Ertz came back from the knee injury suffered in April 2021 with the Red Stars in their season opener and was selected to the Olympic team without playing any NWSL games. She played 524 of the 570 minutes in Japan for the USA, which finished with a 2-2-2 record and took the bronze medal.

It was almost two years between NWSL games when Ertz debuted for Angel City shortly after then-head coach Vlatko Andonovski recalled her to the national team.

“If somebody's 80 or 90 percent is still better than somebody else's best, then too bad," he said. "Anyone that will help us win the World Cup will be considered and will be taken to the World Cup."

When Ertz returned for the 2023 World Cup, it was at center back, a move made necessary when captain Becky Sauerbrunn suffered a foot injury and was forced to withdraw from World Cup consideration.

Ertz finished her national team career with 20 goals in 122 caps. In her 122 games, the USA had a W-L-T record of 100-5-17. Just three times did she start a game and the USA lost, to China in the 2015 Abby Wambach farewell game in New Orleans, to England at the 2017 Algarve Cup and to Canada in the Olympic semifinals in 2021.

Ertz says she is retiring without any regrets,

“As an athlete you’re always singularly focused on the next goal, the next tournament and rarely do you get time to reflect on your career,” she said in a statement. “However, over the past couple of months my heart has been filled with gratitude as I’ve thought about the amazing experiences soccer has given me. I’ve been blessed to meet and train with some of the best and most inspirational women I’ve ever been around, and I’ve experienced different cultures while traveling the world to compete at the highest level. I gave everything I had to the sport that I love. With that I can walk away with no regrets because while I gave soccer every ounce of myself, soccer gave me even more, and for that I’ll always be thankful.”