Lindsey Horan Is Right Where She Wanted to Be

GOLDEN, Colo. — The high school has Lindsey Horan’s professional soccer jersey from France framed near the gym. The Golden History Museum has her United States national team jersey and a pair of cleats on exhibit.

But the best display of Horan’s life in soccer is the upstairs bedroom in her family’s home. It may as well have a velvet rope in the doorway.

“Everyone loves the shrine,” said Horan, 25, who is playing with the United States women’s national team in France in her first World Cup. “My mom will never take it down.”

The walls hold a few of her Lionel Messi jerseys. There is a bedspread made from all the soccer jerseys and team T-shirts she wore as a child, and a boxed bottle of Dom Pérignon for being a part of the National Women’s Soccer League champion Portland Thorns in 2017, when Horan scored the winning goal in the title game.

“We probably ought to find a better place for that,” her father, Mark, said.

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There are trophies on the shelves, snapshots on the door and glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling. There is a photo of 5-year-old Lindsey with her first team, coached by her mother, Linda.

Lindsey does not live here anymore. Her absence does not stop neighborhood girls from sliding letters to her into the mailbox or ringing the doorbell, hoping someone besides her parents opens the door.

No, Lindsey Horan has gone places, big places, most of them on unmarked paths. She was the first elite American girl to eschew college for the European pro leagues when she joined Paris St.-Germain in 2012. She spent most of what would have been her college years in France, returned to the United States in 2016 and is the reigning most valuable player of the N.W.S.L.

Now, with storybook serendipity, she is back in France, on familiar fields, and helping to lead the favored Americans through the World Cup. Horan is critical to American title hopes — a strong, attacking midfielder, binding a sturdy defense with one of the most dynamic front lines in the world.

“I try not to think about it, but the more people say it, the more crazy it is that it is full circle for me, coming back to France,” Horan said. “I played there for three and a half years, and what I did there was all because I wanted to be here.”

“Here” is on this team, in this tournament. When she first arrived in the country as a nervous teenager, it was with this kind of future in mind.

She had an inauspicious start in France back then. Her untied shoelace got caught in the escalator at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport and caused a luggage-and-traveler pileup. Within days, she was crying to her parents through Skype, worried she had made the wrong choice, knowing there was no return to college once you turned pro.

She remembers watching her former American teammates win the U-20 World Cup while sitting alone in a bleak hotel lobby in Guingamp, France.

“I was like, oh my God, this is amazing — those are some of my best friends winning,” Horan said. “And then I just started bawling. Like, what did I do? I’m in this random city. I have no friends. I was homesick already. And I see all my friends winning the World Cup. That was a dagger.”

She eventually thrived, and grew to love France, but that is the question that no one can answer but Lindsey Horan: Did she make the right choice?

It is hard to say no from the vantage point of 2019. Horan has zero regrets. But in the lead-up to the 2015 World Cup, she hoped for a call to the national team. It never came.

“I think it hurt her chances to get in earlier with the U.S. women’s national team,” Linda Horan said.

“But in the long run I think it made her much better — much better,” Mark Horan said. The two often build on each other’s thoughts, like radio hosts.

Horan was 5 when she asked to play soccer, three-on-three with those tiny plastic goals. She wanted her mother to coach. Linda did, for several years.

Her first goal was to be better than the best girl in the neighborhood. She wanted to play with and against children better than her. She practiced against her older brother, Michael, and his friends in the yard. She eventually joined a club team and was plucked by another, the Colorado Rush, to play U14.

“I’d say she was in the top three players on the team,” said Tim Schulz, Horan’s first Rush coach, now the president of the 1,500-player soccer club. “But she had a drive to win. She almost became sulky if she didn’t win, which I kind of like. It’s usually a common denominator for great athletes.”

Schulz told Horan to watch Messi, then a teenager blooming into stardom at Barcelona. Horan admits to being obsessed since. She asked her parents for a Messi jersey, and now has seven or eight.

“The comparison I was trying to make was that this was a player that loves the ball at his feet, he loves to take chances and risks, loves to go one-on-one, open the game up,” Schulz said.

At Golden High School, Horan surmised on the first day that the school team would not help achieve her goal of playing for the United States national team.

“I tried out, made varsity and quit the next day,” Horan said, with a hint of embarrassment. “I made my mom go tell them.”

Instead, she played with the Rush — girls in the fall, boys in the spring, training year-round, often sandwiched around classes at Golden High School and stints in national team camps.

“That’s when I started seeing the change in her attitude to really become a great player,” Schulz said. “And naturally her technique and tactics followed.”

It was after her junior year, at the airport departing for a family trip to Barcelona, that the biggest call came. Jérôme de Bontin, the chairman of the Colorado Rush and a former director of the French Ligue 1 club A.S. Monaco, had deep ties in France. He had arranged a multiweek tryout for Horan with Olympique Lyonnais Féminin, the juggernaut women’s team in Lyon.

“She was offered a position at the end, which still gives me goose bumps,” Linda Horan said.

“And I said no,” Mark Horan said with a shrug.

The Horans were open to their daughter skipping college to play professionally — common in boys’ team sports like baseball and soccer, but rare in American girls’ team sports, because of the limited professional opportunities. Mark, especially, wanted Lindsey to graduate high school first, then evaluate her options.

She had multitudes of scholarship college offers, and accepted one from North Carolina, the powerhouse coached by Anson Dorrance, the former United States coach.

It never felt right.

“That’s a dream for some girls,” Horan said. “It just wasn’t really mine.”

Horan wanted to immerse herself in European soccer culture. But Lyon, limited to only a few international players, no longer had a spot for Horan. P.S.G. did, however, offering a two-year contract paying about $100,000 a year in salary and expenses.

“We were terrified about losing her,” Dorrance said. “You can’t replace an athlete of that caliber after national signing day, as good as she was. But she was made a great offer by P.S.G., and I’ve never had an issue with that sort of thing.”

Horan and Dorrance remain close, texting each other in the lead-up to the World Cup. Dorrance, too, wonders if things would have turned out differently for Horan had she gone to college rather than going pro overseas.

In France, Horan played forward. The United States national team coach, Jill Ellis, stacked with forwards like Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan and Tobin Heath, shifted Horan to midfield. It is what Horan played growing up, and she loved the move.

“The thing we could have done for her faster is that she would have been a better defensive presence earlier,” Dorrance said. “But what I really enjoy is how complete she is. She can create goals, she’s a playmaker, an outstanding defensive presence. At her peak right now, she checks every box.”

Horan is a trailblazer, but few have followed. Her national teammate Mallory Pugh, four years younger, committed to U.C.L.A. but left to go pro before she played there. This winter, 13-year-old Olivia Moultrie turned professional, two years after accepting an offer to (someday) attend North Carolina.

Such cases remain outliers. American women’s soccer development still hinges on colleges. The bottom-line results — three World Cup titles in seven tournaments since 1991, and nothing worse than a third-place finish — are persuasive.

But opportunities and paydays are growing, slowly. This World Cup should nudge them further.

“There will eventually be a tipping point,” Dorrance said. “We’re not there yet.”

Horan’s choice at 18 came with predictable hiccups — culture shock, a language barrier, the awkwardness of being the only American and the youngest player on a roster of seasoned international players. Still, she scored 12 goals, tied for most on the team.

But not everything was expected. In her second season in France, after beating teammates in a fitness test, Horan said, she was told by a coach in front of everyone that she would not play until she lost weight.

“He said it so blunt,” Horan said. “I don’t think he knew what words to use, with the language difference. That didn’t help the fact. I just lost it from there. Why the hell am I here?”

Public image and beauty were an uncomfortable undercurrent, Horan said. A teammate with short hair slipped down the roster. (“They told her she needed to look more like a girl,” Horan said.) Coaches criticized workout wear deemed too frumpy. They made comments when Horan chipped a nail.

“I’d be like, who cares about my nails right now?” Horan said. “I’m here to play soccer. It was a huge image thing for them.”

Anger motivated her. In the end, she did become fitter, she said, and mentally stronger.

“I was able to prove them wrong, do what they asked, and become a better player,” Horan said.

This spring, Adidas made an ad with Horan that tackled the issue of body image. “Fewer stereotypes, more goals,” Horan wrote on Twitter when she posted the video.

It surprised her mother, because Horan had not talked about it publicly before.

“She said she was ready to share it,” Linda Horan said. “I said that’s great. That’s going to empower so many people.”

“She’s really a good role model for little girls,” Mark Horan said. “And I love that.”

Once she returned to the United States, Horan earned a spot on the 2016 United States Olympic team (starting once for a team upset by Sweden in the quarterfinals) and instantly became a top player in the N.W.S.L. She was one of 15 finalists last year for the inaugural women’s Ballon d’Or, awarded to the world’s best player.

A quadriceps injury this spring slowed Horan, and she played sparingly in recent matches leading into the World Cup. But she scored the third goal in the Americans’ 13-0 thumping of Thailand on Tuesday — a moment that prompted her father, cheering in the stands, to shout, “Our little girl scored!”— and she said she feels 100 percent. That should frighten American opponents even more than Tuesday’s score line.

“This was my route, purely for me,” Horan said. “There’s girls that are the same age as me and went to college and ended up here. It worked out for them. I think that’s great. You find your path and do whatever’s best for you.”

John Branch is a sports reporter. He won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing for “Snow Fall,” a story about a deadly avalanche in Washington State, and was also a finalist for the prize in 2012. @JohnBranchNYT

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