Lindsey Horan is the answer the U.S. women need in the midfield

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CARY, N.C. -- Lindsey Horan has yet to show an inclination to work off someone else's script. There was the small matter of skipping a scholarship at the University of North Carolina to sign a professional contract in France when she was 18, of course, but that wasn't her only zig instead of zag. She bought a house and became a landlord when she was 22, thinking real estate investment at an age when peers were still moving out of dorms.

She's in a hurry to be this Lindsey Horan, not the next anyone else.

So Horan's path to the top of women's soccer is her own, MVP of the most recent National Women's Soccer League season with the Portland Thorns and a starter in 16 of the past 19 games played by the U.S. women's national team. Yet with each passing game -- each pass, for the matter -- she increasingly resembles the player the U.S. women have been trying to replace since 48 hours after they won the 2015 World Cup.

Because beyond initials, Lindsey Horan has more than a little in common with Lauren Holiday, the box-to-box midfielder whose value to the United States far exceeded her numbers and whose absence has been keenly felt since she unexpectedly retired in 2015 at 27 years old.

"One, I love her, she is so great and she was such an important player for this team," Horan said of the comparison. "For anyone to put my name with hers is an honor. I loved her game and I would love to emulate it in any possible way. ... She was a very technical player, she could do anything with the ball. She could hit any ball -- short, long, through, whatever you needed from her. But she could also go and score goals as well.

"I would love to say I see some similarities, but she's so good."

Yeah, that's probably even how the understated Holiday would have answered, too.

Also like her predecessor, Horan wasn't a midfielder when many soccer fans first got to know her. Before Holiday was a deep-set midfielder for the U.S. women in the run to the 2015 World Cup and an NWSL MVP as an attacking midfielder, she was a tall, goal-scoring No. 9 when she signed with UCLA, then coached by Jill Ellis, out of high school. Holiday's first look with the national team came in the buildup to the 2007 World Cup, when then-coach Greg Ryan was auditioning insurance behind Abby Wambach.

And for all the focus on Horan's goal scoring out of midfield this year -- 14 goals for Portland tied for the most in the pro league by an American player and a tying header against Australia one of the goals of the year for the United States -- she likewise burst on the scene as a prodigious youth scorer. It was as a forward that she made her way to France as a teenager in 2012, eventually joined for a time at PSG by Tobin Heath, now her teammate with both the U.S. women and Portland.

"She was used to scoring the goals that teams need her to score," Heath said of Horan's roots. "People don't know that really because they've never seen that with the national team, but Lindsey is a born goal scorer. ... So having a midfielder with that ability, that kind of innate ability that she has, is fantastic."

At 24 and vying for a trip to her first World Cup, Horan qualifies as part of the next generation for the United States. She's also old enough in soccer years that it stops her short when asked what she recalls about the first game she played as a professional. Eventually the details return, a toe poke of a goal she's almost embarrassed to claim credit for against Saint Etienne. The point being that, six pro seasons in the books, she already lived a lot of lives on the soccer field. She already dealt with injury, frustration, fear and shifting expectations -- all that comes when the game you play as a kid becomes your livelihood.

In Portland, where the Thorns acquired her in 2016, she found a soccer-mad community that adores her, a coach that believes in her and teammates with talent galore. She found the confidence that comes with experience. But if Portland is where her full potential was unleashed, she is equally the product of the unique starting point as a professional. She is resilient and flexible because she had to be.

"I also think it's a completely different style and culture over there with the French people," Horan said. "Nothing against what they do, that's just them, but my coaches were very strong with me, very hard on me. They wanted that mental strength and they wanted me to get through things and to sit there and scream at me for 15 minutes to get me to a certain point -- after two years it was in French and I better understand it. There were a lot of things that obviously not everyone knows, nor will they -- but it wasn't easy."

Nor is the role she can fill for the United States, one that carries a lot responsibility and not always a lot of reward.

A dominant attacking player who piled up goals and assists in the NWSL, Holiday's last act with the national team was to serve selflessly in a deeper role in the 2015 World Cup. Ellis challenged Horan this year to look to score more goals for the national team, to be a complete midfield presence. But as long as Rose Lavelle also operates as something close to a true attacking midfielder, Horan will also be asked to carry the same, sometimes thankless, box-to-box responsibilities as Holiday.

Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire

In 2018, Lindsey Horan has tallied six assists for the U.S. national team, which is tied with Tobin Heath for the team lead.

Ellis recalled that it was in one of Horan's early appearances for her as a forward (she actually debuted for the national team under former coach Tom Sermanni) that the player delivered a pass to Alex Morgan that required the kind of vision associated with a veteran midfielder, not a young forward. It was the same thing she saw when she watched Holiday pass at UCLA.

Holiday was as good as anyone at that spatial awareness, the instinctive sense of where pressure was coming from and how to solve it so quickly and simply that it was easy to miss without watching a game multiple times. Already better in some other areas, like her ability in the air, Horan might not be there yet as a conductor, but it's not out of reach.

"Her passing range reminds me a lot of Cheney," Ellis said, like many in soccer still instinctively using Holiday's maiden name. "Cheney could play a textured ball, she could play a long ball, and she could play a 50-yard switch ball. Lindsey has that in her repertoire as well. Lindsey's obviously a young player coming into this, but [Holiday] also came in when she was young and developed in the program. So I see similarities in that way, in terms of the path they're taking."

Looking back at 2015, when Holiday's value far exceeded the lone goal she scored in the final, Morgan described her former teammate as that particular team's quarterback.

And while Horan has the ability to contribute goals in 2019, that won't define her value.

"Just looking at that, Lindsey can definitely fill that role," Morgan said. "I think she's embraced it, she's a player who has really just embraced being able to possess the ball but also look ahead and look at getting forwards in behind -- and then having that deep run as well."

Lindsey Horan doesn't need to be the next Lauren Holiday.

But she looks more and more like the answer the United States has searched for in how to play without her.

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