Virginia's Morgan Brian Repeats As Hermann Trophy Winner
It turns out Morgan Brian wasn't just good enough to win the Hermann Trophy. She was good enough to win it in something close to her spare time.
In repeating as the recipient of college soccer's most prestigious individual honor, finishing ahead of finalists Dagny Brynjarsdottir of newly-minted national champion Florida State and Sam Mewis of UCLA in the voting, Virginia's Brian becomes the fifth woman to win the trophy awarded by the Missouri Athletic Club more than once since it expanded to include players of both genders in 1988. In so doing, Brian joins former North Carolina legends Mia Hamm (1992-93) and Cindy Parlow (1997-98), former University of Portland star Christine Sinclair (2004-05) and former Notre Dame standout Kerri Hanks (2006, 2008) on a list of repeat winners that is as illustrious as it is short.
"She's one of the most humble kids I've ever been around, too," Virginia coach Steve Swanson said this season. "The kid's won every away you can win in a lot of ways, and yet you would never know that being around her. It's all about the team, and it always will be with her."
That Brian won the award a second time is all the most impressive considering loyalties divided this past season between her college team in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the United States national team. She missed eight regular-season games for the Cavaliers because of national team duty, 40 percent of the team's total prior to the NCAA tournament. But she made up for lost time. Brian finished the season with 10 goals and 14 assists in 18 games, totals that included four goals and nine assists in the NCAA tournament alone. The latter binge included the eventual game-winning goal in the second half of a quarterfinal at No. 1 overall seed UCLA, a brilliant strike that might as well have been her cover letter to Hermann voters, that propelled Virginia to the College Cup for the second season in a row but just the third time in the program's 27 NCAA tournament appearances.
Brian didn't have as extensive a resume this season as Mewis, who played the full schedule and totaled 16 goals and 13 assists for a UCLA team that lost just that lone game against Virginia. Nor could Brian help the Cavaliers solve the devilish problem posed by Brynjarsdottir and the Seminoles. On hand for all of Virginia's games against Florida State, including the national championship game in Boca Raton, Florida, she was held without a goal or an assist as her team lost all three games by the same 1-0 score line.
Yet if the question is who was the best player in college soccer, the answer was the same as it was for at least two years, if not since the day she arrived at Virginia from St. Simons Island, Georgia, as the nation's No. 1 recruit.
The only collegian who was part of the United States national team that qualified this past fall for the 2015 World Cup by winning the CONCACAF Women's Championship, Brian is the future of the national team. Not solely, certainly, but quite visibly given the amount of time she played at the sport's highest level while still a student at Virginia.
And if the future of American soccer plays like her, there are good days ahead.
A certain segment of the women's soccer-supporting population has longed in recent years for the American youth system, as highlighted by its struggles in tournaments like the Under-17 and Under-20 World Cup, to produce more players like those who grow up separated from the United States by the Atlantic Ocean -- European players who are more sophisticated, more subtle, more refined than the prototypical American blunt athletic instrument trained in the college game.
Well, there is a bit of water separating St. Simons Island from the mainland, but Brian is proof those players can come from American soil and schools.
Kentucky coach Jon Lipsitz coined the single best phrase to encapsulate Brian's particular talents when he talked about Virginia's "speed of thought" after the Cavaliers dismantled his SEC tournament champion in the Sweet 16. Not speed as measured by a stopwatch and a sprint, not even speed of play. What proved unstoppable was the speed at which Virginia, taking its cues from its best player and its engine in midfield, processed what had to happen next.
"It felt like every time there was a decision to be made, they made it faster than us," Lipsitz said afterward.
A year earlier it was Michigan coach, and former United States national team coach, Greg Ryan left to try and explain what set Brian apart from her peers. After first suggesting she might be from another planet, Ryan pointed to what Brian did when the ball wasn't even at her feet, the runs she made and the space she found.
"She kind of pulls your defense apart," Ryan said. "She pulls away from the game and then they find her in a different area and she hurts you there."
It's much the same thing Virginia coach Steve Swanson alluded to when he said this season that Brian didn't need to be moving toward the opponent's goal to be attacking. She could move laterally, even backward, and still attack. She could blast a ball from 20 yards into the corner of the net or chip a perfect pass, like a golfer with a sand wedge, into the path of All-American forward Makenzy Doniak, but Brian just as often tore apart opponents in far more subtle ways.
A fearless header of the ball who rarely shied from the contact that was inevitable as overmatched opponents put 10 players behind the ball, Brian has almost all of those things we like to think of as particularly American assets, right down to caring more about winning than the aesthetics of any victory. But as Swanson, with whom she also won the 2012 U-20 Women's World Cup, suggested as Brian's college career neared its end, what she also showed a culture that is obsessed across the athletic spectrum with bigger, strong, faster and the end result is that the mind matters, too, and that there is no substitute for skill.
Like anyone good enough to be an all-time great, we aren't like to see another quite like Brian anytime soon.
But if a generation of girls tries to play like her, she'll leave a legacy even more impressive than two trophies.