PORTLAND, Ore. – There’s a domineering quality to Lindsey Horan’s play in midfield that feels eternal. Her strength in possession. Vision to probe all angles. Power to separate foe from ball. This is not only the Lindsey Horan we know; it feels like the only Lindsey Horan we’ve known. Sometimes, it feels like she’s been a part of Portland Thorns FC from the start.
One year ago, though, things were drastically different, if not to the eye, than at least to Horan and her coaches. Coming into her second in Portland, the then-22-year-old was emerging as one of the NWSL’s best attacking midfielders, but she still felt her game wasn’t where it should be. And on the national team, she was still being played as a striker, yet to secure a regular role.
“My confidence wasn’t at its highest coming into the year,” Horan says, reflecting back on a 2017 that, ultimately, was one of her best as a pro. By the time the calendar turned, Horan was an NWSL champion, the Most Valuable Player of the league’s title game, named to the NWSL’s second Best XI, and had calcified her place in central midfield for both club and country. Why, in the face of such accolades, was Horan lacking confidence?
It stemmed from the standards Horan had set for herself, measures that had her go and play in Europe after high school and leaves her in the cusp of 50 international appearances despite being one of the youngest players in the U.S. pool. She had made a smooth transition from Paris Saint-Germain to life in Portland, becoming a vital part of an NWSL Shield winning team, but she wasn’t having the impact on games that she wanted. The moments she was able to control games, as she did when the Thorns fought back in their 2016 semifinal against the Western New York Flash, only served as proof. By her measures, Horan could be doing more.
“I hadn’t felt [confident], in a while, just because the kind of pressure I put on myself,” Horan explains. “I always want to perform at the highest level and do whatever I can do to impact games.”
“In the national team, I wasn’t a main starter,” she notes, “And coming in [to the NWSL season], I was a little injured at the beginning of the preseason.” Fair or not, the standards Horan set for herself weren’t being met, and her mentality was suffering for it. The level of criticism she had for herself was starting to become harmful.
That’s when her coach stepped in. Like her, Thorns head coach Mark Parsons thought Horan could be having more of an impact. The times she was on her game, Horan was often the best player on the field, but the consistency could be better. And the way Parsons went about establishing that consistency was by giving her a bigger role and building Horan’s confidence.
“Once I got going, after four or five games, the biggest thing for me was the confidence that Mark instilled in me,” Horan remembers, “and the trust that he gave me. He wanted me to play a bigger role here at Portland.
“I think that was the turning point, for me. Not that I love giving Mark credit for things,” she jokes, “but that was huge for me … Once I felt freer on the field, I felt better mentally. It was easier for me to deal with little mini setbacks: losses, a bad performance from our team, or just me, in general. I could deal with it and not really shut myself down and coop up.”
At that time, Horan was still playing behind the team’s striker, then Christine Sinclair, in an attacking midfield role. But at various points before, like in the pair of matches Portland had against the Flash to close the 2016 season, the Thorns freed Horan up, allowed her to drop deeper to pick up the ball, and saw their fortunes turn. When Horan did the same last year in Boston and brought the team back from 2-0 down, it was clear Parsons needed the emerging field general on the ball as much as possible.
That opportunity came in full during middle of the season, when French midfielder Amandine Henry left the Thorns to join her country at the European Championships. Horan was liberated from her attacking midfield role, allowed to drop deeper in the formation, and became the orchestrator of Portland’s play. Along with Parsons, they had finally found her “bigger role.”
“It’s funny, I just talked to Mark about this,” Horan said, before the current NWSL season, “where it’s kind of like, ‘what’s the best position for Lindsey on the field?’ I’ve always felt that I can play anywhere … If you’re a soccer player, you’re going to be able to play anywhere. You’re not going to know the position as well as your main position, but going from the 10, to the eight, to the six, it doesn’t matter for me.
“We found such a good balance where, I’m one of those players that needs to be on the ball and go find the game rather than waiting for it to come to me.”
The confidence was there, and soon, Horan found herself playing a similar role for the U.S. Women's National Team. She may have been more of the No. 10 in the U.S.’ midfield three (and more of the eight for the Thorns), but in both setups, the goals were largely the same. Horan was somebody both teams wanted on the ball as much as possible. Each setup wanted to free her up to have an influence at all levels of the field. Each coach wanted to give their newly confident star a platform.
For the Thorns, that platform delivered a second NWSL title, with Horan scoring the game’s only goal in October’s Championship game. For Jill Ellis and the USWNT, it’s helped produce a 10-0-2 record in the team’s last 12 matches, with Horan delivering two assists on Thursday against Mexico.
It’s the same form Horan has flashed through two weeks of the NWSL season, where, across matches against North Carolina and Chicago, she has arguably been the Thorns’ best player.
“The first game, I thought her and one player from Carolina were the best two players on the pitch …,” Parsons said. “In Chicago, she came up big time with her goal, and she came up bigtime in creating some mayhem for the penalty.”
“She’s showing signs of what she was doing midseason last year, and she’s showing that already [this season],” he explained. “It’s exciting. Powerful. Energetic. Demanding. Controlling. Good on the ball. Good under pressure on the ball. Helping us in buildup. Getting in the box. And being a great ball-winner, in the air and on the ground. “
That Horan is now providing that presence on a weekly basis brings higher praise from Parsons.
“I think one of the biggest complements to give Lindsey … is she’s now actually doing it week-in, week-out,” Parsons says. “When backs are against the wall, and we were under pressure, and stuff needed to happen, Lindsey would step up and go outside of what her role was to try and help the team.
“What Lindsey has done for two-and-a-bit years now is when the pressure is really on, we want everyone to step up and be big. Of course, it doesn’t always happen. Lindsey does. Always steps up.”
Few on the outside would have noticed Horan’s struggle. To so many, she was the person who, since arriving in Portland, always found a way to step up. For Horan, though, her growth from a player who flashed potential to one who realized it was a turning point - one of the defining moments of her career, thus far.
“I’ve been through multiple transitions in my life, and in any career – soccer career, athletic career – there’s so many ups and downs,” she says. “You really do find yourself in moments that you [never thought] you actually [would] …
“I think [last year’s shift] was a huge moment in my life, and now it’s contributed to this past year. I think Jill has seen that, and I think Mark saw it, through the entire season. I think that is one of the hugest movements that I’ve had, so far.”