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Johnston leaves her idol in the shade

(FIFA.com)
 Player of the Match Julie Johnston of USA
© Getty Images

“I model myself on Christie Rampone and look up to her. Obviously achieving what she’s achieved would be magnificent. I’d really like to meet her just once.” These were Julie Johnston’s words in an interview with FIFA.com back in 2012, as the defender was preparing to captain US U-20 team to the World Cup title in Japan. Then a college student, she was ultimately awarded the adidas Bronze Ball as the third-best player of the tournament.

Now 23, Johnston has established herself as a permanent presence in central defence for both NWSL club Chicago Red Stars and the senior national team. She has featured from the start in all three of the USA’s group matches at the FIFA Women’s World Cup Canada 2015™ – replacing none other than her idol in the process.

By way of reminder, the Stars and Stripes’ former skipper has amassed more than 300 caps for her country, lifted the Women’s World Cup trophy in 1999 and is the first American woman to compete in four Olympic Games. If that were not impressive enough, the 39-year-old also became the first female footballer to win three gold medals when her team emerged victorious at London 2012, and, just a few days ago, became the oldest player to feature at the Women’s World Cup after being brought on as a substitute in the closing stages of the game against Nigeria. “Rampone and the other experienced players gave me plenty of support when I first came into the national team in 2013,” Johnston told FIFA.com, happily recalling her early days in the senior side.

The second-youngest player in the US squad secured a narrow victory over their African opponents with the help of the veteran world champion. Johnston gave an 80-minute gala performance in the American defence and might even have scored her first World Cup goal had she not been slightly offside. “Sometimes I just have a chance to go forward, so of course I try to make the most of it,” she explained. “I love everything about football. You can learn so much from it, from leadership qualities to discipline. This sport involves every kind of emotion.”

Moments after her disallowed goal, Johnston made a perfectly timed tackle on Asisat Oshoala inside the USA penalty box. “It was my mistake. I didn’t adjust so I had to make up for it,” she recalled. Being named the Live Your Goals Player of the Match by FIFA’s Technical Study Group rounded off a successful group stage for the Phoenix-born defender in which the Stars and Stripes conceded only once. “That’s our job,” said Johnston, still frustrated about the solitary goal scored by Lisa De Vanna in the first half of the encounter with Australia.

She’s unbelievable. She played a major role in our youth teams, so she has the necessary experience and takes responsibility.

The duel with the Super Falcons prompted a reunion with eight Nigerians - six in the starting line-up plus two substitutes* - *who also featured in their country’s U-20 semi-final against USA in Japan. The North Americans secured a 2-0 victory that day. “I remembered some of the players and watched that match again,” said Johnston of her preparations. “They were already playing a very fast and physical game back in 2012. It helped me to understand a little about how they move,” she explained, adding with a wink: “But we didn't do any shirt switching.” The only other American representative from that U-20 match to have made it into the current squad is Morgan Brian.

USA’s opponents in the Round of 16 are Colombia, who have reached their maiden knockout phase in this their second Women’s World Cup. The American defence will need to be on their guard for a Las Cafeteras side who scored at least once in all three of their group matches.

US coach Jill Ellis knows that she will be able to count on her defensive stalwart on Monday 22 June, saying: “She’s unbelievable. She played a major role in our youth teams, so she has the necessary experience and takes responsibility. She came into the starting line-up as a result of injuries, but she’s made the most of that opportunity and has done brilliantly,” the coach concluded.

“Of course praise like that makes me happy,” Johnston responded, before recounting her first encounter with her hero. “Christie [Rampone] came to my hometown with her club during the summer season and we sat down together briefly and exchanged a few words – but I’m certain she didn’t know who I was back then.”

While it is practically impossible to compare Rampone and Johnston, the more junior of the pair might soon draw level in one area. Her three senior goals for USA mean she is now just one strike short of her former idol’s tally.

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