Julie Johnston interview: The sparks that will never fade for U.S. defender

Photo courtesy of the Chicago Red Stars
Photo courtesy of the Chicago Red Stars / James Smith

Chicago Red Stars’ Julie Johnston has been admirably handling the switch to professional status so far in the National Women’s Soccer League, and her undeniable on-field understanding with a certain teammate holds one magical memory in particular.

In January’s NWSL College Draft, it was the Chicago Red Stars who opted for Julie alongside Vanessa DiBernardo and forward Hayley Brock. Coming from Santa Clara University, third overall pick Julie was identified by head coach Rory Dames as a player to form the spine of Chicago’s long-term midfield alongside the more attacking fourth pick DiBernardo, of the University of Illinois.

Although Julie, 22, has begun her Red Stars career at the heart of the backline her link-up with DiBernardo has been in evidence. The two combined in the 1-0 opening victory over Western New York Flash as Julie headed home her teammate’s corner. Both have been involved with the U.S. Women’s National Team at senior level having starred together in the 2012 FIFA Under-20 Women’s World Cup.

That tournament was held in Japan and for the U.S. it was to end in victory as they swept aside Germany in the final with Kealia Ohai, now with Houston Dash, scoring the only goal in front of 31,114 in Tokyo. Julie captained Steve Swanson’s team and started all six matches en route to their success, also picking up the Bronze Ball honour.

No matter what Julie goes on to achieve in her career, the memories of that game and the celebrations that followed will stay with her. She explains how music always manages to bring her back to that night.

“Chris Brown ‘Don’t Wake Me Up’ is a huge song. It was our song for the Under-20 World Cup.

“I don’t know if they had us pick a song (for) if we won. If it was a coincidence it would be pretty shocking because it was our team song and when we won (the tournament) it came on with the fireworks and everything else.

“The first time we hear that, even with Vanessa (DiBernardo) here, we look at each other and just kinda smile.”

A mainstay for a Chicago team that has yet to concede more than once in its first seven games, Julie led the U.S. Under-20s with similar awareness and character. Her performances in the World Cup led to her winning the 2012 U.S. Soccer Young Female Athlete of the Year award.

As the whistle blew at the end of the final, all her plans of a stylish and composed celebration went out the window! Falling to the turf with an outpouring of emotion, Julie got to enjoy the kind of moment that makes all the hurt and sacrifices along the way seem completely worthwhile.

In Tokyo afterwards, the energy had returned enough for her to put in another performance.

“We went to a karaoke pizza bar and I had the pleasure to sing Beyonce ‘Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)’ and Whitney Houston… her most famous song, I should know this, right? ‘I Will Always Love You’!

“Those were the two. Luckily I knew the dance moves to Beyonce; I use dancing over my voice because I’m not a very good singer.”


Photo courtesy of the Chicago Red Stars
Photo courtesy of the Chicago Red Stars / James Smith


Winning her first two full international caps under the guidance of Tom Sermanni, Julie has figured in new coach Jill Ellis’ plans so far. Ellis, who was named as Sermanni’s successor last week following a spell in interim charge, selected Julie in the squad for the Canada friendly in Winnipeg this month.

Along with Julie and midfielder Morgan Brian, another member of that Under-20 ‘Class of 2012’ was called up. Julie picked out the Washington Spirit defender in question as the most memorable teammate she has ever had when it comes to singing.

“Crystal Dunn, hands down – that girl is an entertainer. I honestly think if you asked her, if she didn’t do soccer she’d probably try to go somehow in the entertainment world.

“On this team (Red Stars), Dri (Adriana Leon) tries to sing, but (Alyssa) Mautz is the vocal one. She sings like old songs; I don’t really know them!”

As each of my interviews on here explores, music can be a hugely powerful part of players’ pre-match routines and their lives as a whole. In any team, it is likely that there will be a diverse mix of personalities and within that there will be those who are less affected by music, as well as others who have an incredible connection with it.

Certain tracks can start a fire within players as they prepare to head out for a game and a strong team playlist can sometimes make more of a difference than the coach’s team talk! Julie describes music’s significance to her as well as her habits with regard to it on the day of a match.

“I’m actually a huge country fanatic but I also like hip-hop, rap, anything that’s on the top 100 songs of right now. I listen to everything basically.

“Honestly I think music is just a big thing with the sport and outside of it. Depending on my mood it changes a lot, especially when it comes to the sport.

“I like to listen to it even if I’m driving, on the radio all the way before (a game). I’m actually really weird with listening to it right before a game.

“I’ll listen to it on headphones right until the point when we hit the locker room, then I want to listen to it as a team. I know some people like to sit there and listen to specific songs but once I’m in the locker room I don’t have headphones on.

“I like the team to choose songs together. I can really listen to anything, probably a little bit faster music before.

“I’ve been a huge fan of Sam Smith lately so it seems to be fine.”


Photo courtesy of the Chicago Red Stars
Photo courtesy of the Chicago Red Stars


In her time at Santa Clara University, Julie was a two-time First Team All-American and played in a number of positions for the Broncos under long-serving head coach Jerry Smith, including forward. 1999 FIFA World Cup-winning hero for the U.S. Women’s National Team, Brandi Chastain, was one of Julie’s coaches and she spoke in glowing terms about her technical ability, physical prowess and qualities as a leader.

Julie got into the great habit of coming up with game-winning goals for the Broncos and it was certainly an emotional time as she said goodbye to her college days. Setting an example on the pitch is one thing, but she also often led the way with the pre-match playlist too.

“In college I did it a lot and then passed down the torch to a girl named Kat (McAuliffe) because she was pretty good at it. Now I’ll just say ‘next’ if it’s not up to the beat.

“As I’ve gotten older I’ve liked more music, like different genres, but if I don’t like it I have no problem saying ‘next’ or just going up there and hitting it.”

Despite their respective individual qualities, the amount of relatively young players on the Chicago Red Stars roster naturally means that the more experienced players are expected to guide them in a multitude of ways. The likes of Canadian international goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc, three-time Olympic Gold medallist Shannon Boxx, and captain and majestic midfield talent Lori Chalupny have much to pass on.

However, it is one from the younger group who gets to stipulate the tracks heard by the Red Stars before a game – Canadian forward Adriana Leon.

“Dri – (it’s) her iPod mix. She’s the one that’s been updating her iTunes the best.

“She’s been playing Sam Smith so I’ve been pretty happy. I’m not gonna do the tune because I don’t know it but it’s kind of a dubstep song that she plays too.

“She finds mixes that I like. Katy Perry comes to mind too.”

The mention of Katy Perry just about leads nicely back to a time when Julie wasn’t quite as diverse musically as she is now! Growing up with late-90s and early-2000s pop as pretty much her only genre, the first CD she ever bought was from arguably the biggest teen star of that spell.

“Easy – it was a Britney Spears song and I’m pretty sure it was her first album, because I was like seven. Yeah it was ‘…Baby One More Time’, and I remember literally the whole time because we went to Sam’s Club or something and it was the first CD I could get because I was with tape players first.

“I was so excited. I’m like sitting in the back of the car staring at the cover waiting to rip it off.”

When it comes to game day, Britney may not be the most regular choice in the Chicago locker room, although guilty playlist pleasures always find their way back eventually! A more popular choice for such a situation is Beyonce and Julie decided to go with ‘Queen B’ when asked which artist she would choose to cover and with which of her career teammates.

“From the Red Stars, it would be Zakiya Bywaters and KK LeBlanc because I think our voices may not be the best but our performance would be the best. With the full (national) team, I think I would choose Syd (Leroux) and Crystal Dunn.

“I feel like they’re in my genre that I like and again the entertainment would be the best part. I think (we’d sing) Beyonce, with both of them, I feel like there’s a lot of soul in her so those would be the best to dance to…or Rihanna.”

With all the praise Julie has received on her way to this point it would be all too easy to rest on her laurels. As those who have enjoyed sustained success will testify though, becoming a professional does not mean the hard work stops, but rather kicks on to a greater level.

It is clear that Julie plays with distinct maturity and just 13 days after turning 22 she was scoring the winner in her very first game as a pro. That victory over Western New York Flash in April took place in front of 15,743 at Toyota Park, home of Major League Soccer’s Chicago Fire and a regular venue for the Red Stars in their Women’s Professional Soccer days.

After a mixed start, the Red Stars have won their last three NWSL games, taking them to 4-2-1 for the season. The team found their scoring touch with 3-1 and 4-1 wins in their back-to-back matches away to the Boston Breakers.

U.S. Women’s National Team striker Christen Press is still to join from UEFA Champions League finalists Tyresö FF. Australia midfielder and co-captain Emily van Egmond is at the AFC Women’s Asian Cup and New Zealand defender Abby Erceg is a recent acquisition from FF USV Jena in Germany. Add in vastly experienced U.S. midfielder Shannon Boxx making her return after giving birth and defender Taryn Hemmings back in the matchday squad after an ACL injury and the outlook seems bright for Chicago.

For Julie, she has already started to justify her draft selection and she has been extremely grateful for the support from the established pros on the roster.

“I came a little bit late from pre-season because I had school but I wasn’t really nervous, I think I was just excited. The team wants to do well, we want to perform well and we want to win so everyone’s kind of on the same page.

“I think it surprised me how well the older ones helped us become professionals quickly. I was really taken aback by how professional they were as people.

“It’s not so much that it’s surprised me as a professional athlete because having opportunities in the youth team and the national team you really learn what it means to be professional by looking at your superstars basically, growing up. You see how they take care of their body and everything.

“The biggest thing about the league that shocked me is how every game is such a battle. In college, you play some teams and it’s a different level (each time), but here it’s a battle and every team’s good.”


Photo courtesy of the Chicago Red Stars
Photo courtesy of the Chicago Red Stars / James Smith


A role model to Julie, legendary U.S. Women’s National Team defender Christie Rampone sent her and the Under-20 team a letter of encouragement ahead of their ultimately triumphant World Cup two years ago. Julie got the opportunity to speak to the current Sky Blue FC player ahead of the National Team’s friendly with the Republic of Ireland in Phoenix in December 2012.

With her childhood heroes playing in her home state of Arizona, Julie was told by Rampone that she would be watching Julie play for the U.S. one day. She would not have to wait long to join up with the senior squad as she was named in the first camp of 2013 by Tom Sermanni. Julie then made her full debut in a 4-1 win over Scotland in Jacksonville as an 83rd-minute sub for Becky Sauerbrunn.

Her second and most recent cap followed in the 3-1 victory against the Netherlands in The Hague last April. Julie played the entirety of the game and scored a header, which was unfortunately ruled out for offside, meaning a little longer to wait for that first goal!

Julie discusses how the senior figures in the U.S. ranks have welcomed her and also highlights the influence of Red Stars teammate and a true personality of the women’s game, goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc.

“With the full team, it’s amazing how much they have invested in growth of the younger players. I think I can name everyone on that team who’s said something to me I will always be thankful for, and I don’t think they even know that they’re doing it.

“It could be a simple ‘good job’ but from them it means something more that they see something in you. With our team (Red Stars), it’s been extremely helpful to have KK (Karina LeBlanc) here who is a definite veteran of the leagues in general.

“She’s really forced me to push myself because of the potential she sees that I have. We talk back and forth about how we think the defence should go and it’s a good relationship.”

While at Santa Clara University, Julie was named in Glamour magazine’s Top 10 Collegiate Women in April 2013. Her attachment to California for her unforgettable college days is undeniable but what does the Red Stars’ number 8 think of Chicago so far?

“The city’s sick. I’d never been there before or to Illinois but Chicago’s really sick.

“There’s so much to do there – I feel like such a tourist but I love it. There’s great food there, it’s beautiful, the nightlife’s good, it’s fun to go out and just to walk around different places.”

Chicago has been a new experience altogether for Julie since she arrived but home is always where the heart is. Daughter of David and Kristi Johnston, she showed her gratitude to her parents when giving me the lowdown on where she comes from.

“I mean, Arizona’s hot! I’m from outside of Phoenix, I’m from Mesa which is nothing kind of shocking, there’s nothing that’s really known there.

“I went to an OK school, nothing there was flashy. My parents grew me up very ‘work hard for whatever you get’.

“I didn’t play high school soccer. I had to drive an hour to practice to play on a good team.

“That was in Scottsdale which is a very, very nice area so I was kind of back and forth. The biggest thing I’m thankful for growing up is my parents pushing me, making sure I was a better player, but an even better person.

“They made a lot of sacrifices for me, with trying to get to practice an hour away and trying to pay for it. Arizona will always be my home, I haven’t been back in a while so it’s kinda sad but I love it and I can’t wait to go back.”

While with the U.S. Under-20 team in Spain, Julie put herself forward to be the third keeper when they were short on numbers. Putting her body on the line, stepping up to the mark when her team needs it, and demanding more from those around her is what you can always expect from Julie.

The drive and passion she plays with is unmistakeable and sometimes it is easy to forget just how early on in her career she is. From her time and achievements in soccer so far, she assesses what she believes she has taken that she can apply to everyday scenarios.

“I think the importance of being confident in yourself. The more I’ve had opportunities with the full team or even with the (Under) 20, as well as professionally, I think it’s brought me more confidence, but just to have that in daily life.

“The importance of leadership too, because you can really learn a lot from other people and vice versa you can help other people. I couldn’t imagine my life without soccer so when people ask ‘what would you do if you didn’t play soccer?’ I’m like ‘I couldn’t even imagine because it’s such a big part of my life’.”

As she touched upon, Julie did not play soccer while at Dobson High School back home in Mesa, but she did volunteer as a student athletic trainer. The importance of soccer to her is huge however, and teammates and coaches she has worked with have commented on her willingness to study the game.

Her favourite team from the men’s game is Barcelona but aside from soccer she tends to pursue a very active lifestyle all-round.

“I always think about what I want to do (after playing) but I love to try new things, I love going outdoors. Anything to do with exercise or fitness, so I love wakeboarding or paddleboarding or anything I can do outside.

“I haven’t really pinpointed what I want to do after (soccer) but I know I want to do something around sports, around athletes, kids, something like that.”

All that remains is for Julie to take on the site’s regular final question. Each player is asked to picture themselves in a 5-a-side line-up and to select four of the best they have ever worked alongside to fill the remaining four places.

Players from across the male and female game have named their selections in their interviews on here, including U.S. Women’s National Team players such as Megan Rapinoe, Christen Press and Lori Lindsey. At 22, of course Julie is early on in her journey so this is merely an insight into some of the illustrious teammates who have made a big impression on her so far.

“I think the choice of goalkeeper would be Hope Solo. An obvious reason – she’s a competitor and wants to win.

“One defender – Becky Sauerbrunn. She reads the game, she’s dangerous, she’s just great.

“Great person as well – she was the one I think I had the first conversation with when I came into national camp. She gave me great advice; she’s just awesome.

“Midfielder – Lauren Holiday. I think she’s one of the best women’s players of all-time.

“She’s fantastic and knows the game almost better than anyone. Forward’s hard – I think I’ll go with Syd Leroux.

“I’ve actually known her from Arizona but she’s fast, she’s dangerous on the shot, she does her defensive work. As a defender you always love forwards that do their defensive work so she’s great.”

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