The case for Thorns FC's Lindsey Horan as the 2018 NWSL Most Valuable Player

PORTLAND, Ore. – There is always going to be a dissonance when a professional soccer team pushes one of its own for a major, year-end award. “Of course, they are doing that" goes through the minds of anybody receiving the message. What are they supposed to do?

There’s no doubt, anything ThornsFC.com says about Lindsey Horan should be taken with a grain of salt, and the standard to convince you that message is sincere needs to be a high one. But it’s an easy standard to hit in light of what Horan’s produced over the course of the NWSL’s 2018 season. And in light of those accomplishments, the messenger should matter far, far less than the content of the message itself.

“There’s no doubt,” Thorns head coach Mark Parsons said last Friday, after Horan delivered two goals to lift Portland to a 3-1 win over Seattle, a victory that clinched second place in the regular season and guaranteed her team a home game in the league’s semifinals.

“There’s not a conversation about it,” Parsons continued, “because of the impact she’s had everywhere on the field. I grabbed her at the end [of the Seattle game, and said, ‘Wow, you just keep on going back out, you keep on improving. You keep going to a new level. So, we’ll find a new one next week.’”

#StatMan Mike Donovan delivered the raw numbers in an earlier post – a resume that forms the foundation for Horan’s Most Valuable Player case. It would be an impressive case for any player, over any season, in the NWSL’s history. That it was delivered by a midfielder, though, makes it all the more notable, and perhaps more notable than the other stellar midfield seasons that have won MVP honors before.

MVP winners, NWSL, 2013-2017 (plus 2018 Lindsey Horan)
Year TM Player Position GP Mins Goals Assists
2013 FCKC Holiday, Lauren AM 18 1620 12 9
2014 SRFC Little, Kim AM 23 1966 16 7
2015 WAS Dunn, Crystal F 20 1711 15 3
2016 WNY Williams, Lynn F 19 1670 11 5
2017 SBFC Kerr, Sam F 22 1918 17 4
2018 PTFC Horan, Lindsey M 22 1980 13 2

FC Kansas City’s Lauren Holiday (2013) and Seattle Reign FC’s Kim Little (2014) gave titanic, epic performances over their teams’ seasons, but they did so as attacking midfielders – players who are higher up the field, giving them more opportunities to put up bigger numbers. Horan did so as the Thorns’ central, box-to-box midfielder; and sometimes, earlier in the season, as the team’s defensive midfielder, playing at an even deeper level of the formation.

But, as we discussed earlier this year, what you’re seeing above are only the raw, easiest-accessible numbers. They’re not adjusted for playing time, or position, and once you dig a little deeper into the Opta database, they’re often not even the most informative measures. When you consider all those measurements, though, and adjust for the playing time factors, you get a picture of Horan’s all-around play that, in the history of the league, is unparalleled.

MVP Likely Candidates, NWSL, 2018
TM Player Position GP Mins Goals Asssits
PTFC Horan, Lindsey M 22 1980 13 2
CRS Kerr, Sam F 19 1704 15 4
SRFC Rapinoe, Megan LW 16 1315 8 6
NCC Williams, Lynn F 21 1707 14 5
NCC Zerboni, McCall M 20 1800 4 1

This is the challenge for this year’s NWSL MVP voters, one that is philosophical as much as a statistical. In your mind, it’s easy to come up with some vague notion of what somebody like Chicago’s Samantha Kerr brings to the game because so much of her performance either ends up in the goals and assists columns, and is cultivated to do so. To boil down the Australian international to only those numbers would be a disservice to both her and her impact, but for her, as well as players like North Carolina’s Lynn Williams, a larger proportion of their value is tied to those numbers than it would be for other players on the field.

Horan is one of those other players on the field, someone who sits at different place on a type of soccer positional spectrum. But if, at the right-end of that spectrum, sit Kerr and Williams – players who have full license to collect the conventional numbers that, traditionally, wow MVP voters – Rapinoe sits a little farther left, with defenders and goalkeepers near the other pole.

Horan and McCall Zerboni (North Carolina), another possible candidate, are right in the middle. At least, Horan should be, when it comes to the numbers. Part of her game is about collecting the goals and assists that put her in highlights, keep her in fans’ minds, and become the most accessible aspects of a resume that gets thrown at MVP voters. The other parts of her game, though, don’t end up in video clips. They don’t pad the numbers that get flashed on Lifetime or ESPNews. They are just as important as the attacking half of the game, but because they don’t lend itself to sharable moments, they’re parts of the game that tend to be undervalued.

“The Great Horan has been exceptional, this year,” teammate Meghan Klingenberg said, after Horan’s performance against Seattle. “I want it to keep going, because she’s really doing a great job for us and making it so much easier on our backline, making it so much easier on our defense. It’s amazing.”

That is truly the philosophical question that’s being posed to voters. In the part of the game that goes toward assist titles and Golden Boot races, Horan is slightly behind some other candidates, most notably last year’s MVP, Kerr. There is no denying that. But there is also little denying that, in the parts of the game that don’t end up on those numbers, Horan has a significant edge – an edge, if we could quantify it as neatly as we can goals and assists, likely wouldn’t look anywhere near as close as Kerr-versus-Horan is in the goals column.

How much are those other aspects of the game worth? Each voter has to ask themselves, but unless their view of that value is unreasonably low – if there’s a perception of possession, distribution, ball-winning, defending that runs entirely counter to what our eyes tell us, or what coaches ask for on the field day-in, day-out – Horan’s contributions more than make up for any gap we see in these candidates’ conventional numbers.

Lindsey Horan stats, 2018 NWSL season, totals and percentile rank within league per 90 minutes played (all players)
Stat Total Pct. Rank Stat Total Pct. Rank
Goals 13 98.3 Shots 52 91.1
Chances created (open play) 24 76.9 Passes 1298 98.3
Successful passes 972 97.8 Successful passes, opponent's half 480 96.2
Passes ending in final third 267 97.0 Touches 1852 97.4
Dribbles completed 44 90.7 Recoveries 218 90.7
Tackles won 68 90.7 Interceptions 42 71.4
Duels won 297 98.7 Fouls won 46 96.2

That’s not to say this vote shouldn’t be a close one. Players like Kerr, Rapinoe and Williams have earned their places in this conversation, as have other players who don’t put up traditional numbers, like Zerboni. Christine Sinclair and Tobin Heath, too, might warrant places in this discussion were it not for the fact that they are on the team as the best MVP candidate in the league.

“She’s been ridiculous,” Sinclair said. “It’s been an honor to see her grow over these last few seasons, and she’s flying right now.

“If she isn’t the MVP, I’d be very surprised. She’s been remarkable for us, every single game, and it’s been cool to be a part of.”

Yes, Horan is the best candidate; at least, by resume, she is, once you add a little context to her numbers. But reasonable minds can disagree, and even in Horan’s eyes, she shouldn’t be singled out.

“There are so many players in this league that are incredible, that I look up to …,” she said, when asked about her MVP candidacy. “I’m lucky to be among some of these players, and players on this team are some of the best players in the world. Next to Tobin, Sinc, et cetera, that’s the best feeling in the world. I’m so happy to be a part of that.”

But even amid this message – one under a team’s banner; written by somebody who gets paid by the club – Horan’s value is clear, even if she doesn’t want to trumpet it. There’s no bias that can obscure the fact she’s had an MVP-worthy season, and while she may not win this year’s award, she deserves to.

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