U.S. Women's National Team
Lindsey Horan Has a Big Chance and Big Shoes to Fill
February 09, 2016
AS THE UNITED STATES women’s national team shifted its focus from celebrating last summer’s World Cup victory to preparing for this summer’s upcoming Olympic Games, the squad has endured some jarring announcements.
All-time leading goal-scorer Abby Wambach retired. Midfield artist Megan Rapinoe suffered an ACL injury. Amy Rodriguez and Sydney Leroux announced pregnancies. Heather O’Reilly missed the roster cut. For various other reasons, the squad also enters Olympic qualifying without Christie Rampone, Lori Chalupny, Shannon Boxx, and Whitney Engen.
Those combined losses represent an astounding 1,442 international appearances, yet still don’t represent head coach Jill Ellis’ most pressing post-World Cup problem—namely, how does the team replace the now-retired Lauren Holiday in the midfield?
In Holiday’s stead Ellis experimented with a number of options, including giving minutes to Tobin Heath, Becky Sauerbrunn, Emily Sonnett, Meghan Klingenberg, and Sam Mewis at the position. She also gave midfielders Rose Lavelle and Danielle Colaprico their first call-ups.
Ultimately, however, Ellis seems to have made a more unconventional choice, tapping converted forward Lindsey Horan to start in the center of the U.S. midfield in four of the team’s last five matches leading into this Wednesday’s Olympic qualifier against Costa Rica (8:30pm CT, NBC Live Extra).
The move to the midfield is one Horan says she is embracing.
“I’ve been thrown into a new role and have had to adapt to that,” Horan told American Soccer Now. “Right now, I feel awesome about it. I’m playing with Morgan [Brian] in the middle which is really great for me because I’ve known her for so long and I know how she plays.
“I think it’s really cool that we have that connection in the middle and I’m actually enjoying playing center mid. I used to play it when I was 15 or so, and obviously I’ve been thrown into different roles at [Paris Saint-Germain], but I’m really enjoying it here. It’s me getting used to certain aspects of the game that forwards aren’t really used to. I think I’m adapting pretty well, so I’m happy about that.”
Horan credits U.S. veterans in helping her adjust so quickly. During last year’s Victory Tour—in which Horan earned her first cap since 2013—both the current and outgoing stars made her feel right at home.
“Players like Carli [Lloyd] and players that aren’t even here right now—[Holiday] helped me so much and Abby helped me so much," Horan said. "Each one of the players has been huge for me and helping me come into this new role."
Still, the Colorado native knows she faces some challenges. The first, she readily admits, is improving her fitness. The second challenge for Horan in her new role as the U.S.’ midfield cog is adjusting to her new teammates’ playing styles.
“Obviously, the big [challenge] for me is fitness—especially at this level, not just because of that midfield role,” confessed Horan. “Playing for the national team, [fitness] is a huge thing—it’s a huge part of this team as well. That’s always something that I can work on and develop.
“Two, coming into this new role, just knowing how each individual plays. I think a center midfielder really needs to have that connection with their teammates and that’s something I’m getting more comfortable with because I’m getting to know each one of the players I’m playing with and their tendencies—how they like the ball and certain things like that.”
Many American fans, especially the die-hards, first became aware of Horan when she made the controversial decision back in 2013 to skip the college ranks—and a scholarship with NCAA powerhouse North Carolina—to go pro straight out of high school. Last month, Soccer Wire reported U.S. forward Mallory Pugh, who is only 17-years-old, had made a similar decision, but Pugh ultimately went the college route and signed with UCLA.
Horan said she knew Pugh struggled with the decision just as she had years earlier. However, Horan made the choice to sign with French side Paris Saint-Germain after considering many points of view.
“Obviously, I did make that decision [to go pro]—I knew it was right for me and it’s not for everyone,” said Horan.
“My greatest advice was to go talk to as many people as you can,” she later added. “I sought advice from every single person that was important in my life. That was really cool for me because it was able to show me what, deep down, I wanted to do. I think that anyone who is trying to make that decision should do that.”
In the end, Horan knows that despite the challenges she faced she made the right decision in moving to France.
“I’m so happy that I did what I did and I don’t regret a thing,” Horan remarked. “The past three-and-a-half years I was over there has shaped me into the person I am right now and the soccer player I am. I learned so much and matured so much and you can’t find that anywhere here. It’s an experience of a lifetime and I’m so grateful for it.”
This winter, Horan made the difficult decision to come home. Despite enjoying her time in France, she knew that signing with an NWSL team gave her the best chance at making the U.S. Olympic team.
”The obvious [motivation] is Olympic qualifying and the Olympics in general. It was really difficult when I was playing at PSG to be called into camps because a lot of camps aren’t FIFA dates and PSG wasn’t willing to release me,” she noted. “That was the difficult thing for me. Even with the U-20s, I wasn’t able to be released for everything. That’s just kind of how the system works. I had to, deep down, think about what I really wanted to do.
“Making this Olympic qualifying team was really important to me, so I wanted to do anything I could to try and make that team.”
A standout in the U.S. youth program for many years, Horan has missed out on important teams before. Considered a key player on the U.S. squad headed into the 2012 U-20 World Cup, she couldn’t play in the tournament due to a knee injury. Without her, the Americans still went on to win the championship.
Then, in 2014, Horan had another chance at the youth tournament. She led the U.S. with three goals in Canada that summer, but ultimately the team struggled and crashed out in the quarterfinals. Still, Horan relished her experience.
The World Cup "was huge for me,' she recalled. "I was playing with PSG at the time and I kind of took a new role with that U-20 team, a leadership role, which was cool for me because I hadn’t had that on a big team like that. I think the experience of playing in a World Cup is completely different than these friendly games with the national team, or even with your club team. It’s just different.
“Obviously, we didn’t make it through—we lost in the quarters. That was tough too, but we learn from our failures as well. It was good for me.”
Playing abroad and extensively with the U.S. youth national teams has also given Horan a unique view on the world game. Recently, NWSL coaches have begun selling the U.S.’ domestic league to foreign players, calling it “the best league in the world.” To Horan, comparing the NWSL with France’s Feminine Division 1 is more complicated than that.
“In the NWSL, the competition is not as big of a gap as when you see PSG or Lyon compared to the bottom team in the [French] league,” said Horan. “It’s not the same at all. Players are dispersed a lot more [evenly] in NWSL and there are less teams as well.
“The French league is growing and teams are getting better. Before, it was three or four top teams and now it’s five or six. It’s slowly moving up. It is interesting that there is that big of a drop, but you also have the French Cup and the Champions League, which we don’t get here in the U.S. That’s one of the best tournaments in the world, the Champions League—you’re playing against the best teams in the world. That’s a really cool thing Europe has as an advantage over other places in the world, especially the U.S.”
FOR NOW, Horan is focused on the task at hand—qualifying and then winning the 2016 Olympics. Assuming the team can handle the turnover from the World Cup squad—only 13 of the U.S.’s 23 World Cup veterans are part of the Olympic qualifying roster—she thinks the U.S. is in good shape.
“There’s a bunch of new players, like myself, and getting them integrated is a huge thing,” she said. “The older players have done a great job at that and helped us out and helped us feel welcome and comfortable playing. That’s really cool.
“Obviously, things are going to change style-wise when you have new faces and new styles of play for each player. That’s really cool that it’s starting to develop in that way—turnover from the World Cup is hard. It would be so cool if—obviously qualifying is first—but looking into winning two back-to-back international tournaments like the World Cup and Olympics.
“That’s what everyone here is striving to do. We’re just really looking forward to our first game.”
John D. Halloran is an American Soccer Now columnist. Follow him on Twitter.