Horan in Houston — Things Come Full Circle

Lindsey Horan uses her head to score against Haiti. Photo by Gia Quilap.

In early 2016, the midfielder joined NWSL and began her USWNT journey in earnest as she competed in Olympic qualifying in Houston. Four years later, and back in Houston, Horan is one of the more experienced players on the squad.

by Grant Wiedenfeld

The last time Olympic qualifying was held in Houston, few people had their eyes on Lindsey Horan. Even her memory of that 2016 compeition is dim. “It was so long ago!” she says. At the time she had just returned from playing professionally in France to join the senior national team and later start her first season in NWSL. “I remember that being my first major tournament with the full team,” she recalls. “I had just come back from Paris so it was an exciting time for me.”

Horan’s big moment of the 2016 tournament came in the 53rd minute of the final against Canada when she netted the game-winner. “I remember that! We had a corner and the ball got cleared out to Becky [Sauerbrunn] — who is the best person to get it cleared to — and I made a weak side run where no one really saw me. Becky played an amazing ball, and right before the keeper could grab it I flicked it on with my head and it went in the back of the net.” Apparently her opponents did not yet have their eyes on Horan either.

Sauerbrunn gives all the credit to Horan: “It wasn’t even a great ball, but she just experiments with her headers so she got in front of the goalkeeper. That [game] was actually my 100th cap so it was very memorable to me.”

Horan’s “awareness and poise” was clearly evident to NBC Sports analyst Kate Markgraf. Fellow broadcaster Sebastian Salazar commented: “Only her second goal at the international level, but what a big one!”

At the time, Horan says she “had three and a half years of professional soccer under my belt but I hadn’t been at this level with the [senior] national team, so in a sense I was young.” She had stepped outside her comfort zone before, eschewing college soccer and instead joining French club Paris St. Germain right out of high school. Returning stateside to try to claim a spot on the US women’s national team just months after their 2015 World Cup triumph, however, challenged the 21-year-old midfielder in a much different way.

“Now you’re competing with the best players of your nation to make rosters and playing at the highest level at huge tournaments,” she explains. As she fought to break into the starting lineup, having to watch games from the sidelines proved especially difficult. Ultimately, Horan earned a spot on the 2016 Olympic team, but the Americans fell to Sweden on penalty kicks in the quarterfinal. But through these challenges she has developed a positive attitude she describes as “dealing with things and coming out stronger.”

Joining the Portland Thorns in the NWSL proved to be a much smoother transition. Horan credits a continuity of soccer culture from Denver [her hometown} to Paris to Portland, where she joined former PSG teammate Tobin Heath on the Thorns. “Portland has a very similar culture to what I experienced at PSG. Everyone loves anything to do with soccer. That’s what the city is about, so it wasn’t a very difficult transition. It’s a lot like Denver as well.”

Horan thrived in her new home. The Thorns won the NWSL Shield for the best regular-season record in 2016, the next year they won the league championship with Horan earning MVP honors in the final, and in 2018 she set the Thorns’ single-season scoring record and was named league MVP.

Yet these many accomplishments were mirrored by sour disappointments, too: “Winning the NWSL championship, and then the next year we lost [2018], and then the next year we lost [2019],” she sighs. “So many things have happened!”

For Horan, the most memorable event of the last four years was without a doubt winning the World Cup last summer, and the most poignant part of that experience was the semifinal against England. “For me personally, when the final whistle blew during the semifinal and knowing we had made it to the World Cup final was the most incredible feeling I’ve ever had,” she says. “I felt like I had a big role during that game, helped the team, and had an impact, so for me personally it was a huge accomplishment.” It was Horan’s cross that set up the game-winning goal scored by Alex Morgan. But a few days later head coach Jill Ellis chose not to play Horan in the World Cup final so that matchday did not hold quite the same intensity for her.

A new year and a new USWNT head coach offer Horan another chance to go for gold, and so far she’s wasted little time making her mark in Concacaf Olympic qualifying. Coming off the bench in the second half of the opening match against Haiti, Megan Rapinoe sent in a “very good ball” from the corner that finds Horan’s head and then ricochets off the keeper and defender before crossing over the line. “Very over the line,” Horan notes.

In the second group stage match last Friday, an 8-0 win against Panama, Horan got the start and earned her first-ever hat trick for the national team. She also provided the assist on two goals as she played the entire match and helped the USWNT clinch a semifinal berth.

But after the game, Horan wanted to talk about the team’s performance instead of her own. “It was more about how our team was playing,” she says. “All of our forwards are very fast. It makes it easy on me and the other midfielders to know they ability they have. I’m happy for the result and the goals and how everyone contributed,” Horan says with the voice of a seasoned team leader, four years removed from her first major tournament with the senior team.

Head coach Vlatko Andonovski was more direct in his appraisal of the game: “I think that the best of Lindsey Horan is yet to come.”​

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