Six months before she was named MVP of the National Women’s Soccer League, and seven before she pushed the United States to the cusp of a Women’s World Cup berth, Lindsey Horan received an important phone call from U.S. Coach Jill Ellis.
Horan was a fixture on the world’s top-ranked team, but with a new NWSL season underway and the global competition a little more than a year away, Ellis wanted to see more from her. She wanted to see Horan become more assertive in the attack and diversify her qualities. She needed her to take charge of the midfield and place her stamp on every match.
“I challenged Lindsey and said, ‘If you want to be this attacking midfielder for us, you have to be able to have a dangerous pass and a shot from distance,’" Ellis recounted last week.
The idea, Ellis said, was to “challenge her to score goals and be more productive, so we don’t just rely on our front three” attackers.
Horan, 24, has risen to the challenge. With the Portland Thorns, she scored 14 goals in the regular season and playoffs, almost triple her total in 2017. With the national team, she has appeared in all 18 matches this year, starting 14 times and recording three goals and eight assists.
At the World Cup qualifying tournament in Cary, N.C., she assisted on the first two U.S. goals in group play against Mexico and, after serving as a sub against Panama, she contributed a goal and assist to a 7-0 rout of Trinidad and Tobago on Wednesday.
With another victory in Sunday’s semifinal against Jamaica in Frisco, Tex., the Americans would secure passage to the Women’s World Cup next summer in France. Canada will face Panama in the first game of the doubleheader. Three teams from the Concacaf region will advance, while a fourth will enter a playoff next month against Argentina.
Horan is among several new faces to emerge since the 2015 championship campaign, filling a similar central midfield role previously held by the retired Lauren Holiday. She is an attacker and a defender, a link between the back line and three-pronged front line. And in that capacity, Horan has needed to increase her influence.
Her mind-set began to change after the talk with Ellis in March.
“It dug into my head,” Horan said. “It was a real vision of what Jill saw of me and what I could produce. She even said, ‘You could be the leading goal scorer in the NWSL, and maybe you should be.’ ”
Horan plays a deeper-lying role with Portland than she does with the national team, and so she said her initial reaction was, “Are you crazy?”
Once the request sank in, Horan said Ellis was “absolutely right. I know I am able to do certain things. I know I am good in the air and good around the box. I love scoring goals. So in my head, I know I can be a part of the buildup, I can produce more and impact the game in a different way.”
She did not win the NWSL’s regular season goal-scoring title, but did finish tied for second with North Carolina Courage forward Lynn Williams, two behind Chicago Red Stars forward Sam Kerr. Horan also had two assists as the Thorns finished second in the regular season and runners-up to North Carolina in the postseason.
Her statistical portfolio also included league highs in touches on the ball, duels won and aerial duels won. (Six goals came on headers.)
In the MVP voting, Horan finished well ahead of Kerr and Seattle’s Megan Rapinoe, a U.S. teammate.
“Getting to go from playing against her — and being annoyed at how good she is — and now getting to come here [at U.S. camp], I’m just so happy for her,” said Sam Mewis, a midfielder for North Carolina and the U.S. squad. “She deserves all the success she has had this year.”
Horan took a unique route to the national team. Instead of attending the University of North Carolina for what probably would’ve been a four-year college career, the Colorado native signed with French club Paris Saint-Germain. The only other U.S. regular to bypass college soccer was Mallory Pugh, 20, who passed up a UCLA offer to sign with the NWSL and join the Washington Spirit last year.
Horan was in France for 3 1/2 years, where, as a forward, she scored 46 goals in 58 appearances.
Reflecting on Horan’s spike in production this year, U.S. attacker Tobin Heath, a former PSG teammate and current Portland colleague, said: “She was used to scoring goals. People don’t know that because they’ve never seen that with the national team. But Lindsey is a born goal scorer. Having that innate ability is fantastic. At the international level, to have all of those tools, it’s great for us.”
Initially, given her deeper position with Portland, Horan told Ellis that she was out of the attacking mind-set.
Ellis replied, “It doesn’t matter where you are; you’ve got that mind-set in your DNA, so be willing to threaten the [back] line with a pass, dribble, shot."
Horan’s scoring total in the NWSL, Ellis said, “has given her even more confidence to be a very good attacking player.”
In Frisco, Tex.
Canada vs. Panama, 5 p.m. (FS1)
United States vs. Jamaica, 8 p.m. (FS1)
Final and third-place match are Wednesday.
Semifinal winners and third-place team automatically qualify. Fourth-place team will go to a playoff next month.
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