How Lindsey Horan evolved into modern soccer's ideal midfielder

ISI Photos-Mike Gridley
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Horan has already authored an iconic story within U.S. Soccer. A native of Golden, Colorado, Horan was brought through the prestigious Colorado Rush club, competing for the first time against pro-level competition while with Rush’s W-League team in 2012. Around the same time, the attacking standout earned a scholarship to the nation’s most successful college program, North Carolina, but withdrew her commitment to accept a high-paying club offer in France.

At the time, she was the only player in the U.S. system forgoing college to play professionally, but she made the transition seamlessly, scoring 54 goals in 76 career appearances across competitions for Paris Saint-Germain. By the time she returned to the U.S. in 2016, to play in the NWSL, Horan had fully broken into the senior women’s national team pool, establishing herself as the most promising young attacker the U.S. had to offer.

I don’t think versatility can actually hurt you ... It makes it easier for the coach.

- Lindsey Horan

In the process of breaking in, however, Horan’s profile had begun to change. While in France, she looked like the next player set to challenge Alex Morgan and Christen Press in the new, post-Abby Wambach forward pool. When she was cast into midfield, however, it looked like she was about to fall victim to the same problems that plagued Holiday, as well as Press, before the current World Cup cycle. Was their versatility, malleablity, and willingness to move to other places on the field depriving them of developing into the best player possible?

The conundrum also replicated itself at Horan’s new club. Whereas she had been a striker in Paris, Portland already had a well-established one in Sinclair. Though it made sense to place Horan behind Sinclair, playing her as a No. 10, Parsons also was not sure where his new star’s versatility would lead.

“You [have] three positions,” Parsons explained this summer, during Horan’s transition from attacking midfield to a deeper role. “I’ll go, right now, 50-50 on the eight and the No. 10.

“I think the No. 10, you get her closer to goal -- makes common sense to get her closer to goal, most of the time. She’s a finisher in tight spaces, but you limit how much impact she has on the whole game. She has to be disciplined to stay and wait for the opportunities to find her and get her going.

“In the eight, she can grab the game by the scruff of its neck and be the boss of the game. She can do both really, really well.”

Watching Horan grow into a deeper role, though, it’s hard to see a balanced debate. The evidence was there in the NWSL’s conference semifinal, when a perfectly hit ball by Horan from deep midfield flew over her attack, past the Orlando Pride defense, and landed with enough backspin between goalkeeper and field players to sit up for a charging Hayley Raso, who finished for a back-breaking third goal.

Going back to last season, when Horan played a similar ball to Nadia Nadim in a late-season battle against Western New York, Horan has consistently flashed a nearly-unparalleled range of distribution. She also is a formidable and willing tackler, frequently using her size and balance to hold opponents off while she finds the next pass. Her ability to switch the ball and then run onto her fullbacks’ crosses has become a staple of Thorns highlight reels, while her ability to find space while running into play makes her an ideal partner for a defensive counterpart in a two-holder system.

That much has become evident over the last two months. Horan’s move back in Portland’s formation has allowed Parsons to solidify a midfield trio of Henry, Horan and Sinclair -- the cornerstone of a new, 3-4-1-2 formation that helped the Thorns lock down a home playoff game and make the team’s first NWSL Championship game since 2013. Since that time, the Thorns have four victories over the league’s other top four teams -- North Carolina, Orlando and Chicago (twice) -- while Horan was named to the league’s Second Best XI.

In the process, it has become evident that Horan’s case is slightly different than that of Holiday’s or Brian’s -- two players who seemed to be moved because the U.S. didn’t utilize a natural, attacking midfielder’s role. Those players were converted to holding players; in Holiday’s case, at a relatively advanced age. Horan, on the other hand, seems like a player who could have always been a central midfielder, whose production at striker previously made her too good to move.

Even after her transition, Horan talks like somebody who, for most of her life, was asked to produce goals.

“Being a 10 or a nine, I love being a playmaker,” she says. “I love feeding the final pass, combining. I think that’s a huge part of my game that I love. And I love here [in Portland] playing with the players I have around me. I can actually do that.”

There may be a middle ground, though. Horan is most dangerous when her range is stretching defenses; when she can sense an imbalance to one side, switch play to the other; when she can then get forward and find space in an adjusting defense. On Aug. 19, Horan went from center circle to six-yard box in the seconds after finding left back Meghan Klingenberg. The result was one of her season’s four goals.

If that positional balance can be struck to leverage her strengths in midfield and in the penalty box, she might not suffer from the constraints that hamstrung Holiday, pigeonholed Brian, and delayed Press’ ability to reach her international potential. Horan may be a new case for the U.S., one where her ability to fill multiple roles isn’t being used against her.

“I don’t think versatility can actually hurt you ...,” she insists, unwilling to concede being a well-rounded player could possible be a bad thing. “You want to give a coach a choice ... It makes it easier for the coach …”

Perhaps being flexible didn’t work for all of her predecessors, but as time has proven, versatility is actually a strength for Lindsey Horan.

“I think it’s good for you. No matter what.”

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