She left for Europe as a teenager and a trailblazer, but now U.S. Women’s National Team midfielder (yes, midfielder) Lindsey Horan, still just 21 years old but with three seasons of high level professional soccer on her resume, is back home and ready to make a run at the 2016 Olympics.
In 2012, Lindsey Horan made history when she became the first American female player to bypass college and turn professional straight out of high school.
It was a decision not made lightly. She mulled her options for close to a year. Finally, after much counsel from those she trusted, as well as quite a bit of personal soul-searching, she graduated from Golden High School in Colorado and set off for the City of Light, where a contract with one of the world’s top women’s clubs awaited.
Many teenagers finish high school and hit Europe for a back-packing adventure that will last a few weeks. Horan’s adventure would cover three and half years, 58 Division 1 Féminine matches (in which she scored 46 goals), 10 Champions League matches (3 goals) and seven French Cup contests (4 goals), as well as trips all over Europe. All while her peers were in college.
But they say that “travel is the best classroom,” and that was surely the case for Horan, who grew tremendously as a person and a player during her time with European powerhouse Paris Saint-German, playing with and against some of the best players in the world while adjusting to a life few of her high school friends could comprehend.
“Going to Paris when I was 18 was the perfect time for me,” said Horan, who turned down a full scholarship to North Carolina but had sincere appreciation for that opportunity. “UNC is a great school and soccer program, but at the time, for what I wanted to do with my life, going to play professionally and overseas was the path for me. I know it’s not for everyone, and it certainly was a struggle at times, but looking back I wouldn’t have changed a thing.”
Horan had help adjusting to life abroad when current U.S. teammate Tobin Heath arrived at PSG. A free spirit who loves travel as well as the European game, Heath came to the club in January of 2013 after Horan had already been there six months. To have a friend and U.S. WNT player to lean on and learn from was extremely valuable, but Heath stayed for just one season, and then Horan was again the lone American.
Still, adversity makes one grow stronger, and Horan had her share as an American teenager in one of the world’s greatest cities. Moving to Paris alone without speaking any French, and then suddenly adjusting from being a big fish in a small pond to a small but talented fish in a foreign pond filled with much bigger, more famous and talented fish, was an eye-opener to say the least. PSG features some of France’s and Europe’s best players, and she had to find her way.
“I matured on the field and off the field, I had to,” said Horan. “Just adapting to a different playing style, learning under new coaches, learning a new culture, a new language, and having friends and family nine time zones and 5,000 miles away, there was a lot that went into those three and a half years. There were so many learning experiences, so many things I had to deal with: injuries and not being a starter and working my butt off to get that starting spot -- and then having to perform in a professional environment when I did get on the field. I went through a lot, and it made me so much stronger mentally. It definitely prepared me to take advantage of the opportunity with the U.S. team.”
Horan credits a player whom she may soon find herself battling with in helping her transition from teenager to pro. Sweden captain Caroline Seger, her teammate at PSG and one of the world’s best midfielders, served as a mentor and was especially helpful as she made her comeback from injury to get called into U.S. camp at the end of 2015.
Horan was not in contention for a spot on the 2015 Women’s World Cup Team due to a knee injury in January that required February surgery and six months of rehabilitation. She returned to the field for PSG in August and played her first game back in September.
“After the injury, I was really antsy to get back, but I couldn’t get too overwhelmed so I had to find a happy medium and have some patience,” said Horan. “The first few games back were rough and it was a snap back to reality, but Seger took me under her wing and helped me get my confidence back. She was a big positive influence on me, as was Anja Mittag of Germany. Those two are consummate pros and great role models. I started playing well, making some smalls strides in my fitness, and then I got called back into the National Team.”
That call came for the USA’s Victory Tour match against Brazil in Orlando in late October (she played 80 minutes in an attacking role and earned an assist), and then returned for the end of the tour in December. It was there that she made her first start in a new position, as the long-time striker played in a more withdrawn midfield position. In that Dec. 10 match, she scored her first WNT goal, tallying against Trinidad & Tobago. She was once again showing signs of being the impact player for the USA that she’d been when starring for the youth teams.
Horan earned her first two caps as 19-year-old during the 2013 Algarve Cup in Portugal, but after making the roster for 2016 Olympic Qualifying, she’s working to latch onto a consistent starting spot as a holding midfielder, one that was long occupied by the talented Lauren Holiday.
As she worked her way back to fitness at the end of 2015, the familiar taste of international competition solidified Horan’s decision that her French adventure had come to a close. It was time to come home.
She negotiated an end to her PSG contract and will join the Portland Thorns in the NWSL next season. It was a difficult decision for Horan, who admits she cried for a week saying goodbye to her good friends on PSG and to some important years of any young person’s life, spent not in classrooms, on the quad or at college football games, but on the Champs-Élysées, at the Louvre and noshing on bread and cheese picnics in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower.
It was an amazing journey, but her path has now taken her back home, to the doorstep of a goal she’s wanted all along, to be a major part of the U.S. Women’s National Team. A long-time star for the USA’s youth teams -- she scored 15 goals in 17 Under-17 caps and 26 goals in 24 U-20 caps -- the end of 2015 represented a break though into the senior side for Horan.
“I knew this was probably the best chance to use the opportunity to try to make the roster for Olympic qualifying,” said Horan “My being in Paris limited the opportunities to perform on a daily basis in front of the coaches, and I just wanted to make the best decisions possible to help me achieve my dreams. I’ve had a goal for a long time, since I was 15, to be on this team and make those big time rosters. That’s what it came down to, whatever was going to get me there the quickest.”
U.S. head coach Jill Ellis has liked what she’s seen so far of the 5-foot-9 Horan.
“There was a lot of value in Lindsey making that decision to go to Europe,” said Ellis. “It was a brave decision for an 18-year old to go over there, but I think the time is right to reintegrate her back into our programs. She’s had the best of both worlds, so to speak. She’s had the experience of playing in a top European club, and now she comes back here and she’s embracing and learning things that we also value. I’m excited about her, and she’s got a big upside.”
Horan knows the challenges are not over. Being in one of the most competitive environments in all of women’s sports is exhilarating but also taxing on the body and the mind. She feels that she’s ready now, even it if means playing in an unfamiliar position.
“I actually really love it,” said Horan of her new role. “I get the ball more and I love being on the ball and trying to make things happen and getting more involved in the build-up.”
“It’s going to be challenging for her learning a slightly different position, but she’s open to it and she’s excited for it,” said Ellis. “It’s a need for the team, which I love because it’s always putting the team first. Her qualities and attributes are going to make her a tremendous center-mid for us.”
Horan looks back fondly on her time in France where she made friends for life and memories that will last forever, most wonderfully positive, but she also experienced the Paris attacks on Nov. 13, which had her holed up in her apartment for two days. Still, it was all a part of the growth process, one that has brought her to where she wants to be.
“I’m not 18 anymore, I’m 21 now and after a few national team camps I feel a lot more comfortable,” said Horan. “Playing against T&T in that first game in a new position was a great experience, and I got a lot of help from all the players. My teammates have been incredible, and after playing with these World Cup champions and young talented players, I feel more confident in my abilities. It’s been an awesome experience so far, but I know I still have a ton of work to do.”
That work kicks into high gear on Feb. 10 as the USA opens the CONCACAF Women’s Olympic Qualifying Championship against Costa Rica in Frisco, Texas. Should the USA earn a coveted Olympic berth, Horan will get the chance to continue her quest for an Olympic roster spot during her first NWSL season.
“I’m really looking forward to playing in the league,” said Horan, who sometimes watched NWSL games online if they weren’t on too late in France. “NWSL is growing, and that’s a cool thing that I want to be a part of. It will be a new experience to be in that environment in Portland with the fans. I’m very excited for that.”
Nous saluons le retour (Welcome back), Lindsey.