The Rise of Morgan Brian, America's Next Big Soccer Star
In a life thus far lived on fast-forward, Morgan Brian inevitably has missed a few moments along the way. She's missed predictable milestones because she was busy with soccer, a homecoming here and a prom there. She's missed unexpected moments because she was busy with soccer, the lazy weekend mornings and late-night shenanigans.
Heck, at the moment she's even missing soccer, in the form of her senior season at the University of Virginia, because she is busy with soccer, playing for the United States in the CONCACAF Women's Championship.
At least she didn't miss the chance to study abroad. Even if her stay in Portugal this spring had less to do with soaking up culture than chasing Sweden's Lotta Schelin, Japan's Homare Sawa and other international stars around a soccer field for the United States in the Algarve Cup.
That may be the most important thing to understand about Brian, who looks every bit the next American soccer star. She always seems ahead of the game. She played for the United States in the Under-17 Women's World Cup when she was 15 years old. She was the national high school player of the year when only a junior at Frederica Academy in Georgia. She earned her first cap for the senior national team weeks after the end of her sophomore year at Virginia. She won the Hermann Trophy, awarded to college soccer's best player, as a junior in Charlottesville.
So why wouldn't she make herself at home among adults on the national team well before her time in college ends?
"Morgan impressed me the first day she came to our camp," United States midfielder Lauren Holiday said. "There's not a lot of people that come into camp with so much confidence. Alex Morgan is one of them, and Morgan Brian is another, people that have come in and owned the position and owned the camp that they came into."
Holiday went on to say she believed Brian could compete for a starting spot right now, a comment all the more laudatory given that Brian most recently trained at the same position, holding midfielder, currently occupied by Holiday, the 2013 NWSL MVP. Holiday is in no danger of being shunted aside by anyone, but the sentiment is telling.
"I just feel like she's going to be on this team for a long time," Holiday added. "And she's going to make a huge impact."
Brian may or may not see the field this weekend at PPL Park in Philadelphia, home to the CONCACAF semifinal, third-place and championship games. The youngest player on the American roster in the tournament that doubles as World Cup qualifying for the region, she played once as a substitute in three group games. What matters is she is an option at all. Active college players earning national team caps are rare only in the same way that no-hitters in baseball are rare. But for a player still in the midst of her senior year in college to not only accumulate 14 caps for her country but make a qualifying roster that is smaller by three spots than next summer's World Cup roster -- and do it at a position she never played before this year -- is not something that happens every year.
"She's done really well," United States midfielder Carli Lloyd said of someone who was about to start seventh grade when Lloyd debuted with the national team. "She's tiny, but she can hold her own out there. She's simple. She's confident on the ball. She can play long passes, she can play short passes. She's got a lot going for her."
There's not a lot of people that come into camp with so much confidence. Alex Morgan is one of them, and Morgan Brian is another, people that have come in and owned the position and owned the camp that they came into.USWNT midfielder Lauren Holiday on Morgan Brian
The national team has benefited from the likes of Long Island and Oahu before, but it is difficult to find any smaller landmass represented in the all-time player pool than St. Simons Island, one of Georgia's barrier islands along the Atlantic Ocean. It measures just 18 square miles, which makes it easy to understand why Brian estimated her senior class at Frederica Academy in 2011 at about 30 students (while Frederica is on the island, St. Simons isn't even big enough to merit its own public school; Brian would have crossed to the mainland had she attended one).
In a state obsessed with the other football, the island's small size and insularity played its part in shaping Brian's passion. While Frederica didn't have a football team when Brian went there (its first team took the field the fall after she left), the school and the island had a mutually beneficial soccer culture. Brian won four consecutive state titles in high school, her teams outscoring the competition 171-17 in the postseason alone during that reign, but the school was a powerhouse for both boys and girls, including her older sister, Jennifer, even before Brian arrived on the scene.
Brian enjoyed basketball, maybe more than anything else at times, but soccer surrounded her and pulled her in.
"I really enjoy playing soccer," Brian said. "It's such a beautiful game. And It's a difficult thing to do -- I mean, you're playing with your feet. And when you do get things right and you play really good soccer, there's nothing better than that."
She is so far ahead of the curve that she has already experienced both the ups and downs that come with any lengthy stay on the national team. A backup now, she started eight games for the United States this year, all but two when Tom Sermanni was still coach. That new coach Jill Ellis included her on the qualifying roster is evidence enough that Brian is still held in high regard, but her playing time has been scarcer with a new coach a new system. Brian will barely admit it, but the sudden deceleration to what had been unchecked acceleration flummoxed her. No stranger to adversity, Lloyd recalled conversations with the younger player in which Brian expressed all the doubt and frustration that Lloyd knew well.
Yet it didn't stop Brian from making the qualifying roster. She even got through her first low ebb ahead of schedule.
"I think Morgan has always had a certain amount of confidence in her abilities," said Virginia coach Steve Swanson, who has doubled as an assistant coach with the national team during the qualifying process. "I think that's one of the things that makes her very special. She's not an insecure person. If she doesn't have a great game, I think she's the kind of player who can just put that aside and come back and play extremely well the next game."
As soon as the United States wraps up play Sunday, Brian will return to Virginia and try to win the national championship that slipped out of her grasp a year ago after a penalty shootout setback against UCLA in the College Cup, one in which she didn't convert her kick from the spot. The title is just about the only prize that has ever eluded her.
Former United States national team coach Greg Ryan, whose Michigan team Brian helped eliminate in an NCAA tournament quarterfinal a season ago, joked after that game that she must be from another planet. He had watched the tape and knew exactly what he had on his hands against the No 1 overall seed. He couldn't stop it, but it didn't surprise him. What did surprise him, he said, was Brian. As good as she looked from afar, she was even better in person, able to pull apart a defense with her runs off the ball, let alone what she did with the ball at her feet.
She was playing a different game than college defenders. She was ready for another level.
"For me, just being in this environment, this is very magnetic," Brian said of the national team. "You want more, and it pushes you to your limits every single day. I think for me, as an athlete, that's exactly what I want."
And she wasn't willing to wait for it.