Lindsey Horan blazes trail onto U.S. team

Andy Mead/Icon SMI

U.S. forward Lindsey Horan, who passed on a scholarship to play for UNC, has scored 21 goals in 22 appearances at the U20 level.

EDMONTON, Alberta -- Lindsey Horan might live next to some of the greatest sites in the world, but taking the time to see them is a whole other matter.

"I think I generally go to Paris more when I have people come and visit," she admitted of the short train ride into the heart of the French capital from where she resides in the city's suburbs.

Whether it describes the Space Needle in Seattle, Times Square in Manhattan, the Smithsonian in Washington, or the Louvre in Paris, it is a sentiment shared by plenty of her peers, those 20-somethings adjusting to the real world and to jobs that could accurately be described, perhaps for the first time, as careers.

People might buy postcards of the café scene at Les Deux Magots and Café de la Paix, but finding a place around the corner from your apartment to grab something to drink or a bite to eat is a more practical and pressing concern when the week-to-week routine of work beckons. The other stuff can wait for when the time comes to play tour guide.

The unusual part of Horan's version of the story is the timing of it all. Expected to be the star of the team representing the United States in the Under-20 Women's World Cup -- which begins for the defending champion on Tuesday in Edmonton (ESPNU/WatchESPN, 7 p.m. ET) with a rematch of the 2012 final against Germany -- Horan is already a seasoned professional on an American team of high schoolers and college underclassmen. While some of her teammates in a tournament for players born on or after Jan. 1, 1994, will soon move into college dorms for the first time, she will return to France for her third season with Paris Saint-Germain, a club that is a giant of European football and has a well funded women's team that competes in the top domestic league and the UEFA Champions League.

Like LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and countless baseball and hockey players every year, but unlike perhaps any athlete in women's team sports before her -- certainly any player of her caliber -- Horan chose to pass on college scholarship offers and signed a professional contract shortly after she graduated from high school in 2012.

When she is in camp with us, I think the standard is raised, simply because she brings that professionalism. … It lifts everyone's game around her because they see the focus that she trains with.
U.S. U20 coach Michelle French on Lindsey Horan

It wasn't her intention to blaze a trail. It just seemed the best way to get where she wanted to go. Namely, to play for the United States full national team.

Whether that's an aspiration to be admired or admonished, and whether she is an anomaly or advance guard, is a discussion she leaves for others. Much like seeing the Paris sites. She's busy with soccer.

"I tell her all the time how I admire her so much, and she's so inspiring for young girls who want to be great soccer players," said Cari Roccaro, a teammate on the U20 team and a rising junior at Notre Dame. "I don't think people realize how difficult it is living in another country on your own, learning a language you don't speak and playing with some of the best players in the world. ...

"I don't think people realize how mature and focused she is, and how much her heart is really set on this."

Horan is hard to miss these days. At 5 feet, 9 inches, one of the tallest field players on the American roster for the U20 World Cup, she stands out. With 21 goals in 22 appearances at the U20 level -- just four fewer goals than the rest of the team combined -- she keeps your attention too. But Tim Schulz didn't recall any bolts of lightning that announced the arrival of a chosen one when he first saw Horan play. In fact, the president and CEO of Rush Soccer, which bills itself as the world's largest youth soccer club, said he barely remembered her from their earliest encounters. She was a very good player, he recalled, but not one who was so clearly better than everyone else as to fit the prodigy narrative. She wasn't Tiger Woods hitting golf balls on television at 2 years old.

It was only as time progressed that she made an impression.

"There's the DNA component, where many athletes kind of got that gift," Schulz said. "I wouldn't say Lindsey was gifted. I'd say she has some talent, she has some decent genes, but her real gift was her work effort. So go back to other athletes, some just don't have that gene, that DNA, but they want to be a pro. They just don't have that gift, that extra talent that's needed.

"Lindsey had a combination of both. She's got a little bit of talent and a lot of work effort."

AP Photo

Lindsey Horan has played two seasons in France for Paris Saint-Germain and just signed another two-year contract with the club.

By the time she was about 15 years old, she had started to separate herself from most of her peers. At times she trained with as many as six teams at once, one day playing alongside the best girls in her age group and the next with boys her age or older, all in an effort to expand her game. After her junior year of high school, she and Colorado Rush technical director Erik Bushey even traveled to France for two weeks at the invitation of Olympique Lyonnais, the club whose women's team is a Champions League regular and the historically dominant power in France.

Training alongside veteran international stars with a team whose roster included France's Louisa Necib and Eugenie Le Sommer and Sweden's Lotta Schelin proved an eye-opening experience for a 17-year-old. Starstruck but far from overwhelmed, Horan recalled thinking how amazing it would be if she had the opportunity to train in that type of environment against those kinds of players on a daily basis, how much her game could improve.

"To see Lindsey step in literally hours after her travel and playing with some of the best players in the world, it was a great test but truly exciting," Bushey said. "I was kind of bearing witness of the fact that her goals are attainable. That she could blend in with these girls, and being a much younger player, just thinking the potential is out of this world. I think right from the get-go, it proved inspirational, motivational and it was a dose of reality that she can do this."

She impressed her hosts to the degree that Lyon offered her a professional contract. But with one year of high school remaining, she instead returned to Colorado. Still, even having committed to attend the University of North Carolina and play for legendary coach Anson Dorrance, she wanted more of what she experienced in Europe and eventually persuaded her parents to let her try.

The offer from Lyon was no longer on the table when she graduated from high school, but with Rush board member Jerome de Bontin serving as an intermediary with extensive connections in professional soccer, PSG expressed interest. Schulz said there was a minimum monetary figure that Horan's parents and those advising her felt needed to be met in order to make the decision viable, a figure he said PSG met and exceeded with what was described at the time in a Rush news release as a six-figure deal for a two-year contract (she recently re-signed for two years).

It was not an easy transition, even as Horan excelled on the field with 17 goals to share the team lead with Swedish international Kosovare Asllani and rank sixth in the French league. Her mother stayed with her in Paris for a couple of weeks, but she was on her own after that in a country where she didn't speak the language and had no American teammates for several months.

"I can't lie, the first few months out there were really difficult for me," Horan said. "Obviously, when I was really having a hard time, I would have a few doubts in my mind. But then I would realize this is what I want to be doing."

In its own way, the U20 World Cup and a difficult American draw -- which includes not only two-time champion Germany but also Brazil and China -- is the last stop for a youth career that in truth came to a close some time ago for Horan. Several players on the American roster have yet to start college. Only a handful have played as many as two college seasons. Horan has played in a Champions League game in which she shared the field with Marta and Christen Press, among many others, and has already appeared twice for the full national team.

She's so inspiring for young girls who want to be great soccer players. … I don't think people realize how mature and focused she is, and how much her heart is really set on this.
U.S. U20 team member Cari Roccaro on teammate Lindsey Horan

She is the same age as her teammates, younger even than three of them, but she is at a different stage in her soccer life and perhaps life in general.

"When she is in camp with us, I think the standard is raised, simply because she brings that professionalism," United States coach Michelle French said. "She brings a demand for, in her mind, perfection. It lifts everyone's game around her because they see the focus that she trains with, they see how she emotionally reacts to things when she expects better of herself. I think that puts a higher demand on the players that are around her."

Two recruiting classes have come and gone in the United States without another player following Horan's lead. That seems to lend credence to Dorrance's assessment when asked about the subject during the 2012 College Cup -- which his North Carolina program won for its 21st NCAA championship, even without the best recruit in the country.

"I just don't think that model is out there for the women's game because they can't sustain it financially," Dorrance said at the time. "Obviously some of these people that own these teams like [Manchester] City and these other elite teams, PSG is another example, they can afford not to make money. But I don't think there is a viable model out there on the women's side that allowed you to compete with an American education."

The recent financial demise of Swedish power Tyreso, which eliminated PSG in the most recent Champions League competition, isn't heartening news on that front. Nevertheless, without naming names, Horan said she has been approached since her decision by high school players mulling over the same decision. They see a player who is beyond her years, not just physically but tactically and technically, and wonder if she isn't on to something.

"What they really want to do in life, that's what they need to go for," Horan said of her advice. "If they have any doubts or anything, they've got to look into that too. It's a huge move. It's not an easy situation. I try to tell them everything that I went through and whatnot, just so they're fully prepared for what's coming. I told them I completely love what I'm doing and I don't regret a single thing, but it's different for other people."

It makes for an interesting, even uncomfortable, conversation about women's sports in this country, where college degrees are prized and schools like Duke and Stanford excel athletically in part precisely because the degree is more valuable than the earning power of most female athletes once they enter a professional environment. Horan had the academic standing to go to a highly rated university like North Carolina. Her family wasn't in dire financial straits. Hers wasn't a decision of circumstances. A full-time professional training environment simply offered her the best chance to pursue her passion for soccer as far as she can. School will be there should she choose it in the future, and it's not as if living and working in France isn't an education of its own.

For the European stars she plays alongside in the French league, there is nothing unusual about her path. In her own country, it's a door she only recently opened.

"In seeing the younger players that are starting to come up through the youth national programs, I think there are some players that have the potential to follow that same path," French said. "There's got to be a first, and Lindsey was the first. And now I think it's on people's radars as a possibility for truly special players that can end up one day leading the U.S. women's team to even more success.

"I don't think it's going to be a one-off, but then again, things always change in the world of soccer."

So the Under-20 World Cup begins for Horan and the United States. After that, it's back to school for most and back to work for one.

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