On Biggest Stage, Morgan Brian Shows No Nerves For USWNT
OTTAWA, Ontario - Carli Lloyd makes a lot of people nervous. There are plenty of reasons for this, from the velocity at which the ball comes off her foot to the smirk that, in the way seemingly mastered at an early age by New Jersey natives, is even more disconcerting than a cold glare. Friend or foe, she can make you uneasy.
All the more so when you are a college student called into a national team camp for the first time, and you're alongside someone with appearances that number well into the triple digits and a history of scoring goals that win Olympic gold medals.
"She's intimidating," Morgan Brian said. "When you first meet her, for sure."
But, asked to play alongside the veteran she admired from a distance for so many years, Brian looked anything but nervous Friday night in Ottawa. Starting for just the second time in a World Cup, with the program's unbroken streak of semifinal appearances on the line after some subpar offensive showings in previous games, the youngest player on the American roster didn't just play as well as Lloyd. She made Lloyd better.
With that catalyst, it was China that spent the evening defending -- nervously.
"The history of this team, we want to make other teams nervous -- and not vice versa," Lloyd said.
Behind Lloyd's header in the 51st minute, the United States defeated China 1-0 and advanced to the semifinals for the seventh time in seven World Cups. But the goal itself, a perfectly struck header off an equally impressive service from Julie Johnston, was almost an aside for Lloyd in her 200th cap.
More telling, if less discernible from the scoreboard, was the abandon with which she went forward. After four games of stops and starts, of both Lloyd and Lauren Holiday struggling to break free from their defensive responsibilities and positioning in central midfield to do what they do so well at the other end of the field, Lloyd channeled her inner William Wallace.
"Freedom, I guess," Lloyd said of the difference in her play. "Freedom to play, do what I do best, going at players."
Instead of Holiday, who was banished to the stands alongside teammate Megan Rapinoe because of yellow cards in previous rounds, it was the future of the American midfield whose understated presence gave Lloyd the freedom to earn the headlines.
"Morgan Brian sitting a little bit more in that pocket enabled me to roam and find space, connect with the forwards," Lloyd said.
A little more than six months removed from playing for a college national championship for Virginia as the best attacking midfielder in college soccer and one of the best in memory (she is a two-time winner of the Hermann Trophy as college soccer's best player, the same number as the rest of the U.S. roster put together), Brian played the more reserved holding midfielder role in a World Cup quarterfinal match.
What she did won't fill highlight reels, but it was no less valuable. She made tackles in front of the back line -- not that a group that was sensational as usual needed much help. She distributed the ball and switched the point of attack to help her team build the kind of meaningful possession in the attacking third that was missed in earlier games.
"We asked [Brian] to play more of a 6 role and sit and just sort of connect and spray the ball around and connect passes, allowing Carli to join," United States coach Jill Ellis said. "I thought Morgan was fantastic tonight. I thought her touches were good, her rhythm was good, her choices on the ball, decisions, were all very, very good. She spins out of pressure very, very well. I thought she was terrific.
"For such a big game and a young player, I thought she did a great job."
She also made the coach's job more difficult.
Someone who has called the United States home far longer than she did the one from which she came, Ellis nevertheless never sounded more English than when asked if Germany's going to penalty kicks in its quarterfinal against France might lend some advantage to her side in the upcoming semifinal. Showing both the dry wit and fatalism of German football that are traits as English as tea drinking and queuing, Ellis joked that of course it wouldn't -- because they're German. But she now has a conundrum on her hands that is not dissimilar to one that, to some degree, defined a generation of English soccer.
The question for those men's national teams was what to do with Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, two world-class midfielders whose skills seemed to overlap to the degree that they rarely played as well together as they did apart. Holiday and Lloyd have played well together in big tournaments, but as far as the current alignment and philosophy are concerned, we're still waiting to see them look like themselves when paired together.
Neither was quite a No. 6 or quite a No. 8. The math didn't work.
The U.S. needs Lloyd on the field against Germany. It needs Holiday on the field. It needs all of its most talented attacking players to compete with the world's top-ranked team, a team considerably better than China. Slowing Anja Mittag, Dzsenifer Marozsan, Lena Goessling and the rest is a different challenge than slowing China's limited attacking options. But the U.S. also now has tape to suggest either midfielder might be better, given the freedom to roam with the rookie minding the shop behind her.
In truth, the holding midfielder role is only slightly more familiar to Brian than the wide role she was asked to play as a starter against Sweden in group play. That assignment left her largely out of the mix, unable to make her presence felt and unable to help the attack coalesce. Like Holiday and Lloyd, she is more naturally the player going forward, putting opponents on the back foot and picking them apart. It's what she did so well at Virginia and with youth national teams and what she does alongside Lloyd with the Houston Dash of National Women's Soccer League.
"I've played attacking mid my whole life, so that's not something that is like my first instinct to do," Brian said of defending. "But I think, on this team, that's something I've had to embrace. If I have to do that, then I have to do that."
Lloyd joked earlier in the week in Ottawa that seniority would make it easy to decide which of the midfielders in this game got to go forward and which had to mind the fort, but there is some truth to the joke. With Lloyd and Brian together, the roles were clearly defined. Holiday at times seems wasted so far from goal. Brian will one day seem that way too, once we see more of her attacking abilities at the club and international levels. For now, on a roster noticeably devoid of true holding midfielders, save veteran Shannon Boxx, Brian fits the role of apprentice rather well.
"I think it's a huge key to the game, when you're playing in the holding mid role, is just finding the right passes and opening the spaces for teams and winning balls," Brian said. "It's just being that shield in front of the back line."
Although it's not a reason to start her Tuesday, Brian does have experience beating Germany in a World Cup final. She was one of the key players for the American team that did just that in the 2012 Under-20 World Cup. Current back line breakout star Johnston was also part of that team and the tournament's Bronze Ball winner.
"She's a playmaker," Johnston said. "She reads the game well. She's very smart on the ball. As the game gets, I guess, more experienced, she keeps getting better and better at it. She's amazing."
She made Lloyd better Friday night. That made the United States better.
That ought to make a lot of people, even Germans, a little nervous.