The United States is through to the 2019 Women's World Cup’s semifinals following a 2-1 win over host country France, favorites to win a second-straight world title, holders of the record for more consecutive wins in World Cups, and victors after a matchup of what might have been the best two teams in the world. Anybody with even a passing interest in the U.S. women’s national team should be elated, right now, but for those who’ve become attached to Lindsey Horan’s story over the last seven years, the bitterness from the pregame’s penultimate hour will linger for some time.
Why wasn’t Horan in the starting XI? Why? When she was omitted for the last lineup, in the Round of 16 against Spain, we rationalized it was protecting a player from a yellow card. The explanation was made easier by U.S. head coach Jill Ellis’ words in the days before – that the reality of the yellow-card rule, one that sees players suspended if they collect two cautions between the tournament’s first game and its quarterfinals, was one of her most profound lessons from Canada 2015. If that was the case, sure, it makes sense. Surely, Coach Ellis, you are just saving the reigning National Women’s Soccer League Most Valuable Player for your tournament’s most important game: in the quarterfinals, against France.
Surely, but no. Shortly before 11 a.m. PT today, word leaked out that, for the second straight game, Horan being bypassed. Julie Ertz, Rose Lavelle and Samantha Mewis would start in midfield. Horan, despite two goals in group stage, would start on the bench, turning the entire Portland soccer world against Ellis.
You could hardly blame them. Horan’s last two years in the NWSL have put her play on the same level as names like Kerr, Rapinoe, Heath and Mewis. It’s an elite level to which Lavelle’s yet to ascend, and while the Washington Spirit midfielder has been able to flash her enviable technical quality on the international stage, her body of work is just not there. Maybe Lavelle has been dominating U.S. training sessions and forced Ellis’ hand, but from the point of view of a Portland fan, the choice was inexplicable. In the U.S.’ most important game of the tournament, the team had found some reason to take Horan off the field, and cause for us to pit Horan’s resume against her teammates’.
She came on near the hour mark, and the U.S. advanced, 2-1, to the next round, something that highlighted a truth that existed from the get-go. The U.S. has so much depth, dropping one player for another doesn’t significantly change their chances. You could be mad at Ellis’ decision, confounded by the logic, and ultimately admit that it might not matter. If the U.S. played to its potential, France was going to have to overcome a bigger margin than the difference between Horan and Lavelle. And if fans were looking for an “I told you so” moment, the decision was unlikely to create one.
Besides, is that what Horan would really want? Would she want fans in Portland rooting for some type of comeuppance? And was it fair to the other players that one decision could have such a huge impact on our support? Of course, the answers to all of those questions were “no,” but that only made our ordeal more difficult. Nobody should have to apologize for how they feel. If supporting Horan meant feeling a certain way about today’s lineup, so be it. That’s where we’re going to be, for a while.
In hindsight, we should have known. There was always a world where Ertz, the team’s best number six, was going to be seen as integral to the midfield. We knew that. There was also a world where Ellis was going to decide to play with the player who projected as her best number 10. As it turns out, that was a world we were denying – a world that remerged on Friday. In a choice that may have come down to Horan versus Mewis, there’s no wrong answer. So why didn’t the U.S. create a world where you could choose both?
For now, it’s time to move on. The U.S. has one, two games to go. Horan may start both. Maybe today really was about yellow cards. We’ll find out soon.
Having defeated France, the United States has given us something to look forward to, even if, in her day’s selection, Ellis left us with conflicting emotions.