Different roads lead Morgan Brian, Lindsey Horan to starring roles in U.S. midfield

For proof that a system responsible for supplying the United States with the talent to set the standard in women's soccer remains robust, look no further than Morgan Brian. Twice the national college player of the year at the University of Virginia and then a world champion for her country, she turned 23 only after she earned the Golden Ball as the best player in last month's CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament.

Look no further than the player next to her for proof that the system no longer holds a monopoly.

The United States women's national team hopes the midfield partnership between Brian and 21-year-old Lindsey Horan answers one of the questions that stands in the way of Olympic gold this summer. Two of the brightest talents the country has produced in recent years, the pair traveled very different roads to get to this moment. Brian was the All-American. Horan, who bypassed college to sign a professional contract in Europe out of high school, was the American abroad.

"It's cool because it's just two different paths that led to the same thing," Horan said.

For all the attention understandably paid to Abby Wambach during her farewell, the most pressing tactical problem the national team faced as it shifted gears from the World Cup to the Olympics was not how to replace international soccer's all-time leading scorer, but instead how to best replace Lauren Holiday. A surprise retiree, Holiday's role deep in the midfield was an important part of the United States' World Cup victory. The stability supplied by Holiday and Brian, who claimed a starting role alongside Holiday last summer, allowed Carli Lloyd the freedom to do what she did in the attacking No. 10 role.

Now the United States counts on Horan and Brian for that stability. The 23-year-old with one World Cup is suddenly the senior partner alongside a player with 11 total appearances for the national team. For Lloyd to keep tormenting the world, for Alex Morgan to find goals, and for Crystal Dunn, Mallory Pugh and others to emerge as game-changers, the central midfield must be American territory.

"The two center mids on this team, I think, are in charge of setting the tempo," Brian said. "The ability we have to get the ball a lot and influence the game a lot -- I think if we're touching the ball a lot, and we're going through the midfield, [the team] is playing well. It's kind of like the engine of the team. We're the center of the park, so everything goes through us."

Brian's strong play of late, albeit against lesser regional opposition, is its own positive review of her new partner. Brian is comfortable playing a more aggressive role in part because she trusts the player alongside her. Brian and Horan played together on various youth national teams and share a perspective on the game quickly explained by their affinity for the stylish, nuanced soccer of FC Barcelona.

"I think I really know how Morgan plays and how her soccer mind works," Horan said. "I think it's very similar to how mine is, so I think that's really big for us playing in the mid together. I know what she's going to do. I know where she's going to be and what she's thinking about."

It can't hurt that they like each other too. Theirs is not chemistry of short-term convenience, but rather, one forged through years of friendship -- the kind that not so long ago allowed Brian to admit to Horan that she didn't really like her that much when they first met.

Horan was the newcomer back then, talented enough to move up an age level and join a team attempting to qualify for the Under-17 World Cup in 2010. Brian was the name younger players spoke almost reverentially. She intimidated Horan.

But when the new kid is already bigger than most of her elders, quiet is easily misinterpreted.

As Brian said of her recent revelation, "I did tell her that she came off -- because she was quiet and just the way she was carrying herself in the beginning -- it seemed like she was a little cocky."

Even so, the friendship that soon developed was sound enough that not only did Horan seek advice when she made the decision to bypass college, but also Brian was honest enough to say she thought it would be a mistake.

"I was thinking, at that point in time, that a college education with a scholarship is something you don't pass up," Brian said. "In this day and age, we don't make millions of dollars."

Ticketed for stardom even before she was the national high school athlete of the year, Brian chose which college to attend -- not whether she would attend. With her time split between Virginia and the national team and still credits shey of graduation (she insists that will happen this year), her path was nevertheless always going to be the same as that of Michelle Akers at UCF, Mia Hamm at North Carolina, Wambach at Florida and Morgan at Cal.

"College was the best four years of my life so far," Brian said. "For me, it was so much fun. I met some of my best friends and had the best experience. I wouldn't trade that experience for anything else. I think that's a huge part of it -- not only the soccer part but also the life experience that you get."

There were experiences that Horan found too. With her eyes opened by the opportunity to train with another French team while in high school, she took a road never traveled by Americans when she chose a reported six-figure contract with Paris Saint-German over the University of North Carolina. Long before she played for her country, Horan had to keep up with the proven world-class professionals around her, including a sizable chunk of the French national team.

"I think a lot of people develop that maturity and that understanding when they're in college," Horan said. "I think going overseas and experiencing a whole new culture is something you can't learn anywhere else. I was thrown into a position where I had to learn a new language, become professional and not be just that child anymore coming into a team. I was able to learn from players that were so experienced at such a high level. You can't get that anywhere else. Nothing against college, but you can't get that in college ...

"Putting me into training sessions playing against players that were 10 years older, that were way more experienced and, honestly, way better, it was a big shock for me."

The experiences weren't confined to her development on the field. Horan was living and working in and around Paris when the city was attacked in November 2015. One of her teammates was in the stands at the men's soccer match between France and Germany that was an intended target of the terrorists.

Horan watched the news unfold from her apartment, too scared to go out in her community beyond central Paris in the days that followed. Yet she was on the field when PSG became the first professional team in Paris, men or women, to play after the attacks, in a Champions League game five days.

It was too soon, nerves still too frayed and stress too palpable to play a game. In that setting, soccer became a job. Like so many Parisians, Horan went back to work and tried to cope. But in a different country and language, even an act as mundane as shopping for groceries could become a test of patience and resolve. The club offered a support network, of course, but not a cocoon. It expected her to be an adult.

It proved strange at first to talk to friends back home and hear their stories of college life. She took some online courses early in her time in France and tried to pretend it was the same. But it wasn't. She wasn't studying abroad. She was an expatriate, a professional athlete, an adult among adults such as Jessica Houara, a veteran defender for both PSG and the French national team.

"It was like a little child because she was just 18, she was like a baby in a new country," said Houara, with a big smile on her face at the mention of Horan. "But she grew up and grew up and grew up. I was so impressed [by] her."

Horan's maturity is evident on the field. Known as a forward who was occasionally pushed out wide in a loaded PSG lineup, she took on the challenge U.S. coach Jill Ellis and her staff handed her during the team's otherwise ill-fated December trip to Hawaii, and she thrived. That's not to say the transformation is complete or permanent, but the early returns are all positive.

"Her body changed a lot since four years," Houara said. "She works a lot for that, and now she's a real athlete -- a real good football player but a real athlete. I'm not surprised that she's playing with the national team and plays a lot. I can't wait to see her play midfield because I think she has the heart to play midfield, she has the vision and the technique, for sure. So I can't wait to see her. I'm so proud of her because I think she maybe became one of the best players in the world."

During the CONCACAF tournament, Costa Rican veteran Shirley Cruz, another of Horan's teammates at PSG, said she was proud of how much Horan had grown over the past three-plus years. She added that she expected her to be "the next Abby Wambach" for the United States. Although less glamorous, it is hardly less impressive that she is progressing so capably toward being the next Holiday.

"The Lindsey I knew five years ago wouldn't have been able to change to a different position like that," Brian said. "It's a different world playing center forward to center midfield. The running, the physical ability, everything, it's different. But she has moved into the midfield seamlessly, and I think that's a testament to all the work she has done in the past five years."

Like many, Ellis was surprised when Horan chose Europe over college.

"The college route has always been a safe environment and one that is certainly well-known," Ellis said. "For her to take a different path, I thought, was incredibly brave."

Professionally and personally, Ellis has an understanding of both sides of the debate. By her own admission, the former coach at college powerhouse UCLA probably would not have attended university had she remained in her native England -- not so much out of hardship as because of different cultural norms relating to the idea of post-secondary education as panacea. Ellis acknowledges that at least for a select few, Horan will become more model than anomaly. That almost came true in recent weeks, with speculation that Pugh, still a high school senior, would pass up a scholarship at UCLA to play in the NWSL.

Horan said she offered what advice she could -- not for the first time -- to a promising young player. But if it's not Pugh, it will be someone else. The economics of women's soccer suggest it will be a trickle, rather than a wave, but someone will follow Horan's lead. It might turn out worse for them than it did for her, just as college has failed to serve some through the years.

"I think that's part of the evolution of our sport," Ellis said of the developmental avenues. "For us to evolve, there's got to continue to be options available. It's up to the individual to determine which option is the right one for them."

At 18, Horan traded home for the unknown. When she returned more than three years later, she traded one home for another. Leaving that brings into focus what it meant and what will be missed.

"The main thing is my teammates," Horan said. "It's really hard, I developed such amazing relationships over there, and you don't really realize that until you're back, and you're missing them. I miss a lot about Paris. After three and a half years, you get a little sick of it, and you just want to be home. But there are little things, sights. Like seeing the Eiffel Tower every day, that's kind of cool."

Substitute Charlottesville for Paris, and substitute The Lawn, the grassy area at the heart of the school Thomas Jefferson founded, for the Eiffel Tower, and the words could belong to Brian.

That each found her way here appears to the best thing for the national team. It will be up to those who come after to decide which path to follow.