PORTLAND, Ore. – “Lindsey was in the conversation since Week 1 …”
Mark Parsons had just seen one of his best players, Lindsey Horan, put in her most dominant performance of the season, perhaps of her professional career. By the 31st minute, she had two goals, and she spent a good stretch of the second half teeing off from the edge of the Houston Dash’s penalty box, trying for a third. Her 105 touches were a game high, as were her 75 passes, six shots, four shots on target and, of course, her two goals.
On the back of a season that, after two goals in the Portland Thorns’ 3-1 win over the Houston Dash on Sunday night, has Horan tied atop the league’s scoring charts with Chicago’s Sam Kerr (nine goals), Parsons had to answer the question: How seriously should people be taking Horan’s case for Most Valuable Player of the NWSL?
“I think we’ve got quite a few (MVP caliber players),” Parsons began, diplomatically, “and at the same time, we’ve probably only just got going as a team. It has been just a very tough season with many challenges. We’re just starting to roll.
“It will be very interesting how the second half of the season goes. I think we’ve got a number of people who have been big.”
First among them, though, might be Horan. Sunday reminded us why.
Consider her 12 duels won, another place where she finished best on the field. Her seven victorious aerial challenges were tops, too. The five interceptions she collected were a game high, and those 105 touches? They were twenty-six more than anybody on the field.
This wasn’t a triple double. If this were a basketball game, Horan would have gotten to double digits in blocks and steals, too.
She didn’t just hit for the cycle. Horan got the cycle and finished with a walk-off home run after coming in in relief and striking out the side in the top of the ninth.
She rushed for 100 yards, caught 10 passes, returned two punts for touchdowns and made the team’s halftime meal.
If the phrase meant anything in soccer, Horan would have been said to fill up the box score, and even though her Sunday performance may not be a headline-snaring hat trick or the kind of golazo-ridden night that catches fire social media, across the stat sheet and deep into the numbers that teams get from Opta, Horan was dominant. Dominant in the attacking numbers, possession numbers, and defensive numbers.
And increasingly, for Horan, that output is all part of a night’s work.
“Listen, I’m trying to come out every single game and help my team impact this game as much as I possibly can,” Horan said, when asked about her performance. “Whatever the game brings me, I’m trying to find that opening. Lucky enough, I’m scoring some goals and getting into the attack more, and that’s because of what the team is allowing me to do, and what Mark is allows me to do. Anything I can possibly to do to help, that’s my role.”
But, as Parsons pointed out after the match, scoring nine goals in a season is not, strictly, her role. At least, it’s not the role of a box-to-box midfielder in the abstract. It’s not the role as we’ve see performed in this system, before.
Yet, as her second season in the role progresses, and Horan finds more and more ways to exert her influence all over the field, she is starting to set new standard, one that combines some of the dominant attacking and defensive performances from the NWSL’s past into one player’s production.
“[The performance][ she’s putting up,” Parsons explained,” is the best box-to-box (midfielder) in the league. (She) continues to prove that, on both sides of the ball. Tactically, mentally, she’s an engine for us …
“She’s putting numbers up on the offensive side that (former league MVPs Lauren) Holiday and Kim Little were putting up in 2014 and 2015, but then she’s putting in the defensive jewels and tackles that (former FC Kansas City defensive midfielders Jenn) Buczkowski, (Desiree) Scott and (Seattle Reign midfielder Jessica) Fishlock where doing in those years.
“The thing is, those players played one position. That was their job, to defend or to go create and score. [Horan is] achieving what both of those types of players were achieving, which is just incredible.”
Horan is aware that her play is at a high level, right now, but from her point of view, stat-filling nights like Sunday’s are less a product of her form than what’s going on around her.
“I think it’s because of where our team’s at,” she said, when asked if she felt she was playing as well as the stats and eye test say. “Once I see [Christine Sinclair] make a run or step to someone, and Tobin (Heath) and Ana (Crnogorčević), that gives me the confidence to go. If I don’t get there, I know Celeste (Boureille) is behind me.
“It’s such a team thing, and we’re going it, together. Every time that we press the ball, it doesn’t mean that we’re going to get it, but the next player might. It’s such a cool thing that Ana’s going, Hayley’s going, Tobin’s going, Sinc’s going. Now, the next ball is mine. We’re winning it as a team. It’s not just one player.”
Holiday and Little won league MVP awards on loaded teams, in 2013 and 2014, but they did so as attacking midfielders while leading the league in goals. In every year that’s followed, the award has also gone to the league’s leading scorer, with Washington’s Crystal Dunn, Western New York’s Lynn Williams and Sky Blue’s Kerr claiming the last three honors.
Playing as a central midfielder, it seems unlikely that Horan can keep pace with Kerr, who rests even atop the league’s goal scoring chart despite missing four games over the first part of the season. It’s possible Kerr will distance herself from the rest of the league as the season goes on, but given how much Horan contributes in other facets, how close would the golden boot race have to be to change the NWSL’s historic, goal-centric trend?
Or, given how well Horan is playing, maybe it’s time to flip the question. How many more goals would somebody like Sam Kerr have to score to cancel out all the other things Lindsey Horan has brought to the field?
“Lindsey was in the (MVP) conversation since Week 1 and Week 2,” Parsons explained, “and she’s only got better and better. There isn’t anyone else in the league that’s doing it, that’s affecting the whole team like she is.
“It’s hard. When you’re playing a central position, you can’t. She’s affecting both sides of the ball so much. She can.”