How WoSo Took Over My Life

Or, Lindsey Horan and the Vector of Sportsfandom

by Grant Wiedenfeld

 

The 2019 NWSL final at WakeMed Park. Photo by Michael Cox.

Lindsey Horan sent me halfway across the country to watch a women’s soccer game between two teams I had never heard of before this year — and Lindsey wasn’t even in the game.

There I was in Cary, North Carolina last fall, scrambling to cover the last mile of my trip to WakeMed Park for the NWSL championship game, jumping out of my rideshare caught in a line of traffic, reporter’s bag on my shoulder, scurrying past little kids and older fans in USWNT jerseys, bounding over railroad tracks, my pulse increasing as I passed the tailgaters and heard the pregame roar of the stadium. That’s the moment when I realized that I had become a full-fledged WoSo junkie.

The addiction began last summer, when I was indulging in one of the few perks left to those working in education — the long summer vacation. It offers time to recover, to work on other projects, and … procrastinate. The buzz from the Women’s World Cup in France offered a pleasant distraction from my academic study of the political significance of sports movies. Pretty soon my breaks were getting longer, and I was waking up early to flip on the tube and watch the US national team battle for an unprecedented fourth World Cup title. (I belatedly apologize to any neighbors I might have alarmed by screaming “Let’s Fucking Go!” during this time.)

I soaked up as much knowledge as I could from the Fox Sports commentators. JP Dellacamera taught me all the USWNT player names, tagging each one as the ball bounced around the pitch. “Sauerbrunn to Dunn. Mewis. Up to Morgan. Over to Rapinoe on the wing,” and so on. Before long I was evaluating players at each position. Years of experience in armchair coaching had evidently prepared me for this.

As I saw the USWNT starting lineups change across the group stage matches, the big question became whom coach Jill Ellis would start against Spain in the round of 16 and, if the Americans won, against France. Reading various tweets and game analyses online helped unfold this drama for me. I became convinced that there was one player who could unlock the team’s full potential, but Ellis kept her sitting on the sideline.

I had never admired a soccer player’s style until I watched Lindsey Horan. If she did not already have a nickname, “The Great Horan,” I would call her Lindsey Vector. She plays the ball from point A to point B precisely and efficiently. Every ball becomes a vector with a direction and a momentum, straight out of a geometry textbook. Zoop. Zing. Zam. No energy is wasted on curves or bounces. Strong and balanced, no one bodies Horan off her line. Lindsey vectors a pass across, Lindsey vectors a flick through traffic, Lindsey vectors a header on frame. Boom.

But Horan is not a machine. The beauty of her style blossoms in the pauses before she passes — scanning the field, teasing a defender, then launching an instant vector. When she’s on, it looks like she’s playing footy with a calculator and everyone else is adding by hand.

After being charmed by Horan’s style and learning that she was the NWSL MVP for 2018, I was aghast that Ellis did not have her starting in the knockout round of the World Cup. Who was this Mewis in midfield? And how was tiny Rose Lavelle supposed to hold up against Spain? As that game and the quarterfinal against France teetered between each side, the thought of an MVP on the bench doubled the drama for me.

By the last few games of the tourney, I couldn’t stand the TV commentary. The same broadcast that endeared me to the game now seemed elementary. Now when I heard, “O’Hara finds Mewis. Back to Dahlkemper,” I got annoyed. “I know their names, bro! Tell me what strategy they’re using, and the counterstrategy! Unveil for me the secrets of WoSo!”

Unsurprisingly, watching the Women’s World Cup final taught me why Rose Lavelle was starting in midfield. I was so impressed by Rapinoe’s poise and Lavelle’s brilliance that I wrote an ode to their performances and posted the story on an old sports blog I had thrown up in grad school. But I still wanted more. How could I wait another four years until the next World Cup?

I couldn’t, of course. I couldn’t even wait a month for the Victory Tour to begin, matches whose outcomes would be inconsequential. I wanted real WoSo pronto, and so I turned to the National Women’s Soccer League to get my fix.

Following the last three months of the 2019 NWSL season expanded my WoSo world considerably. I learned that Horan’s Portland Thorns have a championship rivalry with the North Carolina Courage as well as Pacific Northwest lumber to pick with SeaTac’s Reign FC. As I became more familiar with team rosters, I saw how the national teamers are sprinkled throughout the league, along with a few Canadian national teamers and several other international greats. But the more I followed the league, the more I became interested in the *other* players — the veterans no longer on the US national team and the young hopefuls trying to break into their club’s starting lineup. And I became more interested in the clubs chasing their first playoff berth — the Utah Royals and my hometown Houston Dash — as well as a young Washington Spirit squad.

The Thorns came to Houston while Horan was away in France, so I had to settle for seeing her play versus the Dash via the away game webstream on July 24. When Lindsey vectored in a loose ball in the seventh minute, my multiple allegiances made me feel all mixed up inside. And when The Great Horan got on her bicycle and rocketed a shot on goal that Dash keeper Jane Campbell miraculously saved (twice!), my head nearly burst.

I was so addicted at this point that simply watching the games would no longer satisfy my cravings. I wrote my way into the Dash pressbox somehow and met some a few fellow WoSovians. Voluntarily taking an outdoor seat to breathe in the gameday atmosphere, I met a mage at the front of press row — the Keeper herself, Jen Cooper. We talked so much that the players on the field soon became twenty-two among twenty thousand stories that were continuously unfolding. Now I wondered which stories I might write and share with other fans.

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“Should I wear a blazer to the interview?” I asked myself, having little experience as a journalist. Shorts and a tank top would suit the midday heat at Houston’s practice field, but I wasn’t there as a fan. I had seen Carli Lloyd steal a ball from Dash rookie Ally Prisock in the first minute of the previous game and nearly score; later I watched Prisock burn Lloyd on a similar play in the second half, and feed a pass to Rachel Daly for the game-winning goal. So who was this rookie? I got on the beat by requesting an interview. I left my blazer in the car but not my nervousness.

Thankfully Prisock had enough media experience and poise for a flock of silly journalists, even with teammates walking past and ribbing her. I wrote a spotlight on Prisock and followed it up a few weeks later with one about fellow rookie CeCe Kizer

Ultimately Houston missed out on a playoff berth, but the team never relinquished the attitude patented in their slogan, #DashTFon. Cooper invited me to discuss the team and its season under new head coach James Clarkson on the Mixxed Zone podcast. So at the end of the regular season, the only way I could get more WoSo was to follow the four playoff teams — all located as far away from Houston as possible.

I interviewed two players by phone in anticipation of the semifinals. I dared not request an audience with the Great Horan, especially given that she had suffered a concussion in the last regular-season game. Instead, I wrote about Chicago Red Star and NWSL Player Association President Brooke Elby. After she described Chicago’s special season (did she sense that it would be Sam Kerr’s final season with the team?) I began to pull for the Red Stars too.

Am I to blame for the Thorns’ 1–0 loss to Chicago in the semifinal? Horan and the Thorns had reached the last two NWSL finals, but as soon as I jumped on the the bandwagon, fate defied me. If I had devoted all my allegiance to Horan, would she have scored a hat trick to win the semifinal? Then again, I also wrote a story on Darian Jenkins and was all-in on the Reign, but the SeaTac squad lost the semifinal to North Carolina in extra-time. I guess these are the hard questions that WoSo junkies often ask themselves.

I booked a flight to North Carolina for the NWSL championship game, despite the absence of “Lindsey Vector.” By this point I knew all the players on the Red Stars and the Courage, and I knew the formations. It was just a matter of getting to a stadium designed with a bottleneck entrance and no public transit. Fortunately the forecasted rain gave way to sunshine, and I pleasantly walked the last mile to the stadium, and only missed out on the tailgating.

The Courage would win 4–0 and I wanted to understand why, after playing the Red Stars so closely throughout the season, did they win so handily? Obviously there’s Debinha and Dunn on the Courage squad, along with several other World Cup players, but what about Ertz and Naeher, who should have protected the goal for Chicago? Solving this puzzle seemed to require some wizard-level WoSo knowledge.

The 4-2-3-1 and a baby set Chicago on fire, I deduced. Courage coach Paul Riley said in his postgame press conference that he had the team prepare against both four-back and five-back formations, and were surprised that Chicago stayed with a more aggressive four-back despite Tierna Davidson’s injury. Ertz had played in the midfield in previous games against the Courage, and was crucial in holding Debinha and Dunn in check. With Davidson out with an ankle sprain and fellow defender Arin Wright out on maternity leave, Ertz had to shift to the back line — and the Red Stars were ultimately overwhelmed by the Courage attack. Perhaps they could have tried another starting lineup or another formation. Or perhaps the Courage are simply the better team, playing their best at the end of the season, and they would have found another way to counter.

After the game, I was impressed by Crystal Dunn’s small stature and huge smile; she looks like Lebron James on the field. Yuki Nagasato’s good humor carried on despite the loss, and she even deigned to answer questions from a nobody reporter. I even met the other “Grant W” soccer reporter and learned that he was named after a daytime television character (my parents lamely flipped through a book of baby names). Chicago coach Rory Dames thanked the press for all they did to promote the league. (Speaking for myself, coach, it was a pleasure!)

Since the late October final, pivotal questions kept me scrolling through my news feed. How will the US national team change under new head coach Vlatko Andonovski? How will the Dash and other NWSL teams evolve next season with improved player compensation, allocation money and new contract rules, plus expansion on the horizon? Can Lindsey Horan recapture the magic of her 2018 MVP season and lead the national team to Olympic gold, or the Thorns to another league championship?

Lindsey, you vectored an arrow through this sports fan’s heart, and I’m in love with all of WoSo now. I’ll see you next season!

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