ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The U.S. Women's National Soccer Team is ranked second in the world. The journey to first place in the World Cup starts tonight as the U.S. plays Australia. It's been 16 years since the U.S. women won the World Cup. As they begin another quest for glory, NPR's Shereen Marisol Meraji introduces us to a player to watch.
SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI: Let's kick this off with the sound of victory.
(SOUNDBITE OF SOCCER GAME)
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Goal.
MERAJI: That's 90,000 hysterical fans losing it after Brandi Chastain scored the winning goal to beat China in 1999. The last time the U.S. won a World Cup, U.S. defender Julie Johnston was 7 years old. At 23, Johnston's the second-youngest player on the U.S. national team. And if the sendoff series was any indication of what the starting lineup is like, she'll be there in a hotspot - center-back. Some people call it the beating heart of the defensive line.
RORY DAMES: I would say it's very similar to a quarterback in football.
MERAJI: Rory Dames coaches the Chicago Red Stars, the professional soccer team Johnston plays with in the National Women's Soccer League.
DAMES: You know, it's the last line of defense before the goalkeeper. It has to do the most organizing, has to be able to read the game the best. And for somebody as young as Julie to be able to do as well as she does speaks volumes of the kind of person she is and the kind of ability she possesses.
MERAJI: In 2012, Johnston captained the youth team that won the U-20 World Cup and was U.S. Soccer's Young Athlete of the Year.
UNIDENTIFIED MEN: (Chanting) Johnson, Julie Johnson, she's the best you're ever going to see.
MERAJI: Members of the American Outlaws fan club are perfecting their anthem for tonight. It's Johnston, guys, with a T. Needless to say, she's got fans. They're holding up larger-than-life photos of her head at games, chanting her name with and without the T.
UNIDENTIFIED MEN: (Chanting) Julie Johnston, she's the best you're ever going to...
MERAJI: But this breakout star didn't even make the qualifying team back in October.
CARLI LLOYD: Well, you know, I knew that she was in a position of being on the brink of not making the team, and I think it was hard for her not making the qualifying team.
MERAJI: Midfielder Carli Lloyd, who's played in two World Cups, invited Johnston to come train with her private coach to get better. Lloyd says she didn't hold her hand, didn't beg her to come, just told her when and where to show up.
LLOYD: She was willing to learn, wanted to get better, and you can definitely see it out there that, you know, she's taken her opportunity and seized it.
MERAJI: A couple of injuries on the back line of the U.S. national team cleared room for Johnston to show off ahead of the tournament. As a defender, she scored three goals. She hasn't always played defense. She was a midfielder and forward at Santa Clara University.
JULIE JOHNSTON: I loved being an attacker so much. I mean, it wasn't so much that I didn't think defending was fun or anything like that. It was just - growing up, that's kind of all I knew - was attack, attack, attack.
MERAJI: It's that drive that her fans can't get enough of. U.S. Team Coach Jill Ellis calls her a warrior, and she brings that fire to the defensive line, sometimes going on 60-yard runs up the field. Her pro-team coach Rory Dames says she's the future of the center-back position. And to think she wasn't that into it at first.
JOHNSTON: I think it's a whole new respect for it, and I'm starting to enjoy it and love it even more than I thought I could.
MERAJI: The pressure of this level of international competition could get to her, sure. But she could be the player that scores the winning goal to bring home the World Cup title after 16 long years. Even if it's something in between, Julie Johnston is worth watching. Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR News, Winnipeg. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.