Midfielder Morgan Brian continues to return to form for U.S. women
Whatever uncertainty there is about Morgan Brian's role in next year's World Cup, assuming the United States qualifies, no such doubt exists about her value in the most recent edition.
There might not be a title for the U.S. women to defend if not for Brian. The team's youngest player in the 2015 World Cup, her mid-tournament inclusion in the midfield helped free Carli Lloyd and pump oxygen into an attack struggling to ignite. The United States was shorthanded in the round of 16, so her opportunity arose out of necessity. But mere months after her final college game, Brian looked comfortable and confident on the biggest stage her sport provides.
"As the tournament wore on and games got more and more critical, I think I saw an amazing competitive resolve, a physical part to her game," U.S. coach Jill Ellis recalled of Morgan, who was then just 22 years old. "She added a physical element to it. But more importantly, [it was] her ability to keep the ball and quarterback a little bit in there. ...
"I think I had challenged Mo when I first took over to be a player that has a full range in her passing complement, to be able to change the point and also know when to change the tempo. In that tournament she was the right insertion at the right time."
By the end it felt as if Brian's time had arrived. Lauren Holiday retired soon thereafter. Lloyd set this current World Cup and Olympic cycle as her final act. The midfield appeared to be Brian's to own for a decade to come.
But just three years later, she won't take even 90 minutes for granted. Once the surest of sure things, her future is among the U.S. team's defining question marks. The answer will come from her responses to different questions.
How do you trust a body once it lets you down?
And what does soccer become when you find it is not your sole identity?
With the clock ticking toward 2019 and the World Cup next summer in France, she is still unraveling those riddles.
"I've learned so much about myself," Brian said recently. "I've learned about my character and what you want to fight for. When something goes wrong, and hard, you really learn what you want to strive for. For me, I'm hungrier than I was before.
"When you can't play soccer, what you love, it makes it really difficult."
Neither Brian nor almost anyone else on the U.S. team recaptured their World Cup form in a disappointing Olympics the following year. Injuries slowed her for both club and country over the past 18 months. She was traded by the NWSL team that selected her with the No. 1 pick in 2015. An even more recent high-profile move to French juggernaut Lyon ended two years earlier than the original contract anticipated.
There wasn't any single catastrophic injury that felled Brian, but a series of nagging issues characterized at various times as affecting her knee, hamstring and groin kept her out of much of the U.S. and NWSL schedules in 2017. Brian, who until then had kept an almost pristine bill of health throughout her career, would do the rehab, think she was close to resuming business as usual and then feel something else wrong.
"It's a difficult one because you need to feel whole to play your best," Brian said. "But it also takes a lot of time to get back to that."
She is hardly alone in that dilemma. It's just that few players encounter it for the first time only after carving out a starting place on the world champions. Among Brian's closest friends on the U.S. team, Lindsey Horan experienced her own injury woes while still trying to make her case for a regular starting role with the national team. No matter the timing, and no matter the setting and commitment to rehab, it is always something of a leap of faith.
"It's such a difficult thing, and it's so mentally exhausting," Horan said. "You're missing out playing the most important thing in your life -- and that's your job, your career. I think Morgan's done a very good job at taking the positives out of everything and being diligent with her work off the field and what she has to do with recovery and treatment. I still see it in camp today, where she's in the training room all the time and getting [physical therapy] and doing whatever she needs."
That is what Lyon was supposed to be about. Arguably the greatest team in the women's game (results in the International Champions Cup notwithstanding), Lyon was where Brian could fast track her return to top form. But beyond injuries that persisted for stretches of her time abroad, it never proved the right fit.
For one thing, it was the first time she could remember setting foot on a field without knowing a single person there.
She suggested that if the timing had been different, if she hadn't needed summer games to prove herself before World Cup qualifying, Brian might have stayed in France. Proving herself in tough environments was hardly foreign to someone who earned a place on the national team at such a young age. But with Lyon entering its summer offseason and it clear that she didn't factor in the first-team plans, there was interest in moving on.
Brian contended she got what she wanted out of the experience despite its brevity. But she also sounded far happier when she described her first day of work back with the NWSL's Chicago Red Stars, who acquired her from Houston in the 2017 trade, alongside numerous friends.
"I've always played soccer because I enjoy relationships and friendships that I make -- being able to joke and enjoy that side of soccer with friends, the camaraderie," Brian said. "Obviously being on a team that you aren't able to speak the same language is really difficult, especially at practices and everything. ... It's not just purely about the soccer level, because at Lyon you're playing with the best players in the world. And I really enjoyed playing that style of play.
"But I think for me, it was super important for me to realize that it's not just about the soccer. It's everything, it's life outside of soccer and enjoying that and being comfortable and being happy outside of soccer -- because it's such an important piece translating onto the soccer field."
Her choice to repeat the phrase "outside of soccer" hints at the second question in front of her. Brian was the phenomenon, the player who skipped high school dances to drive several hours to train in a different state. She went from youth World Cups to college seasons at Virginia to senior national team camps. There was very little, if anything, outside of soccer. She pushed herself to be great, and starting in a World Cup final at 22 is unassailable proof that she succeeded.
Yet between the forced inaction of injury or team selection in Lyon, there has been a lot of life beyond the soccer field over the past 18 months.
"I think a lot of times, young players, soccer has been our whole life," Brian said. "So when you have to take a step backward and you have to find joy outside of playing soccer, you learn a lot about yourself and learn about life and grow up quickly. I graduated from college and I got married in the same year I couldn't play soccer. ... Those are two great things, both blessings."
She said she wouldn't give up the lessons of the past 18 months. And maybe the body took one for the mind in the long run, physical injuries preventing potential mental burnout from so much high-stakes soccer in such a young person. Recharged and re-centered, she could realistically play a key role for her country in at least three more World Cups.
"She's always had a plan," said Emily Sonnett, a current U.S. teammate and former college teammate. "I think now, her going through injuries, coming back to America from Lyon, I think she's done a great job of managing herself. But everyone is going to have a bump in the road."
The United States has a wealth of young midfield options at the moment. But Brian's place in the starting lineup for the first two games in the Tournament of Nations speaks to her place on the depth chart.
"Mo at her very best is one of the best midfielders in the world," Ellis said. "She doesn't have a big frame, but she's strong, she's competitive and obviously very tidy on the ball. So getting her physically healthy will massively enhance her ability to influence games. She covers a lot of ground. She is a box-to-box midfielder. ... She's the full midfielder you want."
Perhaps the full midfielder the United States needs to be at its best in 2019, just as she proved to be in 2015. But with all that has changed since then, only Brian knows the answer to that.
And even she might still be working on it.