Horan was named Most Valuable Player of the 2018 National Women’s Soccer League season by virtue of being at or near the top of the league leaders in a staggering breadth of statistical categories, both offensive and defensive. She was a goal scorer, a possession hub, an aggressive dribbler, and a midfield enforcer, a do-it-all dynamo the likes of which modern soccer rarely sees. Her role on this U.S. team is to serve as its fulcrum: As she slides up and down the pitch, she’ll tip the balance from defensive solidity to overwhelming attacking force.
The default state for this U.S. team is certainly the latter. Coach Jill Ellis brought seven forwards on her roster even though the team typically plays only three at a time, meaning someone is doubly redundant. The American lineup is so forward-leaning that even the defense and midfield are packed with attacking talent. Left back Crystal Dunn was the NWSL’s top scorer in 2015. Right back Kelley O’Hara was named the nation’s top college player a decade ago as a forward at Stanford. Horan, who skipped college to sign with Paris Saint-Germain as a forward at age 18, scored 14 goals in 24 games from midfield for the Portland Thorns in 2018. The American team is designed as an overwhelming human wave, like from a scene in an old kung-fu movie in which 50 people with axes show up to threaten the protagonist. With so many people attacking from so many angles and depths, somebody’s going to get you eventually—it’d almost be harder for them not to.
There’s a logic behind this imbalance. The U.S. suffered its earliest major tournament exit ever at the 2016 Olympics, losing on penalties in the quarterfinals to a Sweden team that was more than happy to defend with everyone behind the ball and turn the game into a prolonged siege. The U.S. is so loaded with attacking talent—it has scored 29 goals in 10 games in 2019—that Ellis is betting other teams are going to default to the Swedish strategy rather than go toe-to-toe with the U.S. and risk leaving gaps in their own defenses. The U.S. team’s attacking prowess has begotten the need for even more attacking prowess. To help her squad navigate a series of increasingly elaborate fortifications as it progresses through the tournament, Ellis has made sure to pack every piece of weaponry she could fit on the roster.
Now she has to get the balance right. The U.S. struggled through much of the early goings of the 2015 tournament before Ellis sacrificed an attacker from her starting lineup to bring on midfielder Morgan Brian, who made the team sturdier in the center of the field and helped shuttle the ball from defense to attack. Brian’s introduction in the quarterfinal against China pushed Carli Lloyd up the field into a free role, from which she annihilated all comers, scoring five goals in the final three games.
The hope is that Horan can do the work Brian did while also contributing more to the attack. She’s the one who will flip the switch between reasonable caution and ludicrous speed. When she pushes up into the attack, she makes it nigh unstoppable; to cover her and Alex Morgan and Tobin Heath and Megan Rapinoe and Rose Lavelle and Dunn and O’Hara in the final third practically requires you to put every woman available back in your own box.
But the world’s best teams can’t be held at bay forever. While the offense may have scored at will in 2019, the U.S. defense has also given up two or more goals in four of its five games against top 10 opponents this year, exactly the teams it will have to beat to win the World Cup. It lost 3–1 to France in January and drew 2–2 with both England and Japan later that winter (those two tie games without Horan, who has been dealing with nagging injuries for much of the year).
Horan’s advances risk leaving the space in front of the American defense relatively unprotected. Defensive midfielder Julie Ertz’s instincts are to hunt the ball, not hold her position. If Horan gets caught upfield trying to strike the killer blow, it’s easy to imagine a nightmare scenario in which three opposing attackers are running at U.S. center backs Becky Sauerbrunn and Abby Dahlkemper with room to build up speed. That’s Horan’s dilemma. She’s both the haymaker that can knock opponents out of games and the team’s key protection against getting rope-a-doped by someone looking to absorb and break. It’s a delicate balance to strike, even if her role for the U.S. has tended toward the latter; she’s scored just eight times in 68 international appearances.
With so many dangerous players on the field and on the bench, that’s how she can best help this U.S. team. It needs someone who can win the ball back quickly and keep defenses under pressure. It needs someone who can snuff out opposing counters early. It needs someone who can navigate the middle third and set up her teammates in good positions. The goals are bound to come. Horan can do everything, but on a team this offensively gifted, all she needs to do is everything else.