How Lindsey Horan evolved into modern soccer's ideal midfielder

ISI Photos-Mike Gridley

A promising forward turned No. 10 (sort of), the Portland Thorns midfielder has finally found her place.

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When, at the end of the 2011 World Cup cycle, Lauren Holiday began her positional progression – going from forward, to wing to, eventually, a deep-lying midfielder – it seemed like a persistent process of wedging a player into roles, rather than letting a player’s skills define her use. At the dawn of the National Women's Soccer League in 2013, Holiday immediately emerged as one of best attacking midfielders in the world yet was still rarely played in that role for the U.S. The heights she could have reached in the world’s game, if she’d been played in her best position for the U.S., will forever remain a mystery.

When Morgan Brian, an attacking midfielder coming out of the University of Virginia, was similar pushed into a deeper role at the end of the 2015 World Cup cycle, it felt like a case of déjà vu. And now, as the 2019 World Cup cycle approaches its most important phases, we have another instance of an attacking standout being converted to a deeper role. Lindsey Horan, bred as a striker throughout her youth, now projects as a central midfielder for the national team. The question is whether that is truly her best role.

“The most important thing, for me, is to be on the field whenever I can, and to help my team,” Horan says, magnanimously, after a summer practice at Providence Park.

For most of the NWSL season, she has played as an attacking midfielder, but in the wake of the departure of French international Amandine Henry for the European Championships, Horan was pulled into a deeper midfield role. The move, along with club captain Christine Sinclair’s from forward to attacking midfield, solved Portland’s early-season attacking problems, locking each player into her new position.

“I was playing in Paris as a nine,” Horan remembers, her natural forward position, “and a seven and 11 [on the wings]. I come back here with the national team, and Jill puts me as an eight. I think it is really important that you can take on that role, and you can just be a soccer player in general. Whatever the coach needs of you, you go out and do.”

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

This was two seasons ago, when Horan was transitioning back into life in the U.S. She had just finished three-and-a-half seasons in France, and presented with an opportunity to join the Thorns, she decided to return home. There, however, her life as an attacking protégé started to change.

“I came into the national team, played an eight, and then I came to Portland, and [Thorns head coach] Mark [Parsons] decided to put me there as well. With player changes and people coming in, I went up to a 10, and now with the national team, I’m playing a nine and an eight. It’s all over the place.”

Recently, her “all-over-the-place” positioning has begun to settle down. In the U.S. women’s national team’s last friendly, in September against New Zealand, Horan started as the highest player in a three-person midfield, charged with being the fourth player into attack from a box-to-box role in front of Samantha Mewis and Julie Ertz. The result was one of the U.S.’ most complete performances by a midfield this year, aided by Horan playing in a role that she has started to make her own at club level.

For her part, Horan doesn’t see herself confined to any single role, or label. When asked to wade through the versatility and myriad skills that entails, the 23-year-old reverts to more basic principles, calling on a more universal competency that should define any professional who takes the field.

“I’m a soccer player. That’s how I like to define it,” she explains. “Honestly. I think of [U.S. and Portland teammate] Tobin [Heath] in that way. I think she’s a true football player, where you can put here anywhere on the field. I know I could play Tobin Heath as an attacking mid, or wide, or up top. Even she’s played outside back a few times for our national team. She’s a football player …

“It’s very important. I like defining it just as a soccer player, because playing this game, playing professionally, you should know each position in and out. I know you don’t have practice in it, but if you’re truly a soccer player, you can understand it and play it to the best of your ability.”

NEXT: Why Horan isn’t your typical converted midfielder