Team USA's Ms. Versatility Lindsey Horan: On switching positions and Messi lessons

Lindsey Horan #9 of Team United States makes a pass during the Women's First Round Group G match between New Zealand and United States on day one of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Saitama Stadium on July 24, 2021 in Saitama, Japan. (Photo by Francois Nel/Getty Images)
Lindsey Horan #9 of Team United States makes a pass during the Women's First Round Group G match between New Zealand and United States on day one of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Saitama Stadium on July 24, 2021 in Saitama, Japan. (Photo by Francois Nel/Getty Images)

Striker-turned-midfielder and 2019 World Cup winner Lindsey Horan talked to Tokyo 2020 about her total comfort with playing a deeper role for the U.S., a tough tangle with COVID-19 last year and why she watches Lionel Messi obsessively.

Much was made of Lindsey Horan's switch of positions in the run-up to the 2020 (in 2021) Tokyo Games.

As a natural striker (she still wears the traditional centre-forward's number-9 on her shirt) many suspected a shift back in the field, toward the number-6 role in the middle, might cause some issues -- for herself and the team as a whole.

But "a soccer player is a soccer player," she insisted to Tokyo 2020 a few months back, talking about the positional swap that has allowed her to flex her passing muscles more and do the play-making from deep.

The change, for Horan, was no big deal. With a footballing IQ as high as you're likely to find, she knows the secrets of the game no matter where on the field she finds herself playing it.

And while the return of long-injured Julie Ertz in a stunning opening-day loss to Sweden (3-0) seemed to upset the balance in the U.S. midfield, the Americans found steady footing in their next match. Horan scored in the 45th minute of a 6-1 mauling of New Zealand, which just so happened to be her 100th game in a USA jersey.

No fuss over positions

“I studied the game so much from when I was a kid and I feel like I see the game really well,” added the 26-year-old Horan – tall and powerful and great in the air, but a creator in her bones – about the various positions she’s been asked to play for the United States since her first cap as a teenager. "I don’t really care where you put me, as long as I can get on the ball."

She's obviously comfortable deep in the midfield, but she’s a nightmare for defenders when she moves farther up into the number-10 role, scheming behind the strikers. And at the tip of the spear, as a traditional centre-forward, she might be best of all.

Horan dominates the attacking third of the field, even from her deeper role under new USA coach Vlatko Andonovski. She happily stalks the spaces from touchline to touchline, between both penalty areas, eager to find the gaps. She’s always on the lookout for the ember of an attack. She’s most at home, as she says often, on the ball. This is no surprise considering the club – and one player in particular – she grew up emulating.

If you’ve ever peeked at Horan’s twitter feed, you’ll know who it is.

“I got it into my head early to watch [Lionel] Messi,” said Horan, who speaks with encyclopedic knowledge of those Barcelona teams that changed the game of football forever with Pep Guardiola, demanding and cajoling, at the helm. “I would follow Messi on the TV screen and see what choices he made. I was obsessed. And it wasn’t just him, but [Andres] Iniesta and Xavi, too – this was wizardry! It opened up my mind to a whole new world.”

Horan broke with tradition and became the first American woman to go overseas in 2012. Barely 18 and straight out of high school, she lined up for PSG for four seasons (scoring 48 goals in 56 games as a straight-up striker). In making so bold a decision, Horan turned down a full scholarship to the University of North Carolina – the school that produced Team USA trailblazers Kristine Lilly and Mia Hamm.

“There were no guarantees that I’d get myself in the national team by going to France,” said Horan, who returned to the States in 2016 and won an NWSL title and league MVP award in 2017 and 2018 respectively with her Portland Thorns. “I didn’t have anyone before me who did it and so I kind of didn’t know if it was going to work out.”

So-so debut to leading role

Her first USA cap came in 2013, when she flew from France to Portugal and played 25 minutes against People's Republic of China in a game at the annual Algarve Cup with then PSG teammate Tobin Heath -- who Horan ranks as her favourite all-time women's footballer.

“I was young and it was so new,” she said, again with a laugh. “I just told myself before I went in: ‘don’t screw up’. I can’t tell you how nervous I was. I just tried to pass the ball to a teammate, any teammate, when I got it.”

A century of caps on from those first wobbly steps, Horan has become an automatic on the USA team sheet - first under former coach Jill Ellis and now for Andonovski. She gives off the impression that's she's ready for anything. And on the pitch, she might well be. But a positive COVID-19 test in late 2020, during a surge of the pandemic in the United States, knocked the Colorado native sideways.

“It was one of the worst couple of weeks I’ve ever had,” she said of her bout with the virus that saw her miss a USA friendly in the Netherlands. “It was a real misery. I had all the symptoms… it was some of the worst I’ve ever felt in my life.”

She isn’t the type to exaggerate for effect. She’s as tough as they come, born and raised high in the Rocky Mountains around Denver. Even before she came down with COVID-19, Horan suffered through the doubts and worries of the early pandemic times, when no one knew how bad it would get, or how long it would go on. She rented out a field near her family home and trained almost every day for three months with Manchester City player and Canada international Janine Beckie, who has roots, like Horan, in Colorado.

“It's so hard to keep preparing for something you don’t know is going to happen. We hit a wall near the end of those months. We were working so hard and, at some point, we had to ask each other: ‘why the hell are we doing this?’”

Lindsey Horan of the USA celebrates with teammates after scoring her team's first goal during the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup France group F against Sweden (Photo by Martin Rose/Getty Images)
Lindsey Horan of the USA celebrates with teammates after scoring her team's first goal during the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup France group F against Sweden (Photo by Martin Rose/Getty Images)
2019 Getty Images

The question, of course, was rhetorical. The answer was simple: because there’s an Olympics on the horizon. While the whens of it remained unclear for a time, the goal – for Horan and all the other players in the USA squad – remained firmly in place. For them, the 2020 (in 2021) Games is more than just a chance to win a fifth gold medal. It’s a chance to set the record straight.

Rio revenge and Olympic dreams

“That feeling never goes away,” Horan admitted, speaking of the quarter-final defeat via a penalty shootout to Sweden at Rio 2016. “As a team, we ride on winning and getting to finals. That’s not meant to sound arrogant, but that’s how it is. Everyone [in the U.S. team] still has that bitterness in their mouths.”

The first chance to get some revenge came and went as the Americans lost their first match of the Tokyo Games, once again to Sweden. It snapped a 44-game unbeaten run. The loss had many pundits doing all the apocalyptic head-scratching and asking questions about whether the U.S. women were going to suffer a shock early exit from the tournament.

"It's a result that left us pissed off," Horan told media after the loss to the Swedes at Tokyo's Olympic Stadium. "at the end of the day the mentality wasn't there. I think we all know that. I think every single player in the field feels like they could've done more."

But the U.S., as their reputation demands, won't fold at the first whiff of danger. The rout of New Zealand in their second match sets up a mouth-watering Group G finale against Australia on 27 July in Kashima, which the Americans must approach as an all-or-nothing affair.

Horan, having won the World Cup in 2019 and with still-fresh memories of the victory parade in New York City where the players were welcomed home as conquering heroes, wants to know what it's like to feel Olympic gold around her neck.

“Winning a World Cup is the pinnacle of soccer and it was the goal I had for my whole life. It was an absolute dream,” said Horan, allowing herself to revel in memories of the trophy-lift, and the ticker-tape that rained down on the Big Apple's Canyon of Heroes. "But after that, it's time to move on and it's all about the Olympics."

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