Lindsey Horan is the best player in the National Women’s Soccer League, and she’ll have the spotlight when the Portland Thorns host their rivals the Seattle Reign in the NWSL semifinals on Saturday (3 p.m. ET, Lifetime). She’s coming off a two-goal season finale against the Reign, which likely cemented her first league MVP award.
Horan’s ascent to the top of women’s soccer was not unexpected. She turned down college soccer to sign with Paris Saint-Germain at 18 years old, and scored 54 goals in 76 appearances before arriving in NWSL in 2016. With each year since she made her international debut in 2013, she’s become a more important part of the United States women’s national team.
So no, it is not surprising that Horan has become a locked-in starter for the national team, or that she’s put together an MVP-caliber NWSL season. Those things have felt inevitable since she was a teenager. But it’s still notable how truly dominant and stylistically unique Horan’s MVP campaign has been — she was already a star in her first two seasons, but she made a leap this year by improving in every area of her game.
“No one will come close again to doing what she’s done this year,” says Thorns head coach Mark Parsons. “Only Lindsey Horan is capable of improving on the impact she’s had.”
The most obvious thing that sticks out about Horan’s season is her goals. She has 13, good for third in the league, and much more than anyone else who doesn’t play striker. The league’s scoring leader, Sam Kerr of the Chicago Red Stars, netted 16 times in 87 shots. North Carolina Courage’s Lynn Williams scored 14 times in 95 shots. Horan — who starts attacks from a deep-lying position and has significant defensive responsibilities — didn’t get to shoot as much, but her efficiency was incredible. Her 13 goals came from just 52 shots.
Horan often gets involved in build-up all the way in her own penalty area, then pops up 80 yards downfield to apply a finish about 15 seconds later. Her first goal against Seattle over the weekend — the NWSL goal of the week — is a perfect example of this.
Somewhat counterintuitively, given her box-to-box midfield role that you’ll often hear referred to as the “No. 8,” Horan shoots more than she sets up teammates. She has 52 shots, but just 26 key passes — an often misunderstood stat that doesn’t actually make a value judgment, but is just a short way of saying “pass that led directly to a shot by a teammate.” Conversely, Horan’s teammate Christine Sinclair — the more advanced midfielder, or “No. 10” in the Thorns’ system — has more key passes than shots.
Sinclair has played striker for most of her career and is one of the best goal-scorers in the history of the sport, so you might guess that she’d be more of the scoring type of No. 10, rather than the playmaking type. Instead, she’s turned into a very balanced attacking midfielder who looks to pass as often as she looks to shoot. That complements Horan’s game perfectly.
“It’s a very weird statistic, but Lindsey’s often helping us build,” Parsons says of Horan and Sinclair’s shooting and passing numbers. “It makes sense with the roles that they play. Lindsey often gets it to the next set of players that are trying to create the attack. Once Lindsey gets it there, phase 1, she then has to get to phase 3, which is finishing the attack. Sinc’s always living in phase 2.”
The buildup to Horan’s stunner over the weekend shows exactly what Parsons is talking about. When Portland starts to build the attack, Horan is close to her box, offering a passing option for the defenders.
When Portland breaks Seattle’s midfield line and breaks into the final third, Horan is nowhere to be found. If you’re not used to watching her, you might be wondering why Portland’s best goal-scorer isn’t even in her own half when the ball gets worked into the box.
Why would you want your best attacking weapon so far from goal? But wait —
Oh. The Thorns are cool with Horan starting attacks so deep because she can do that. Horan’s timing on her late run to the edge of the box is perfect. She gets there just when the ball does, and there’s no Seattle player marking her.
Parsons says that’s always been one of the best aspects of Horan’s game, rather than one she developed recently. “It blew me away in 2016, the ability she showed,” He says. “I remember there was one game in particular, Boston away, she was in our six-yard box defending, and then in the next second she was in their six-yard box, and then back in our six-yard box, she was just end-to-end. She has the physical capability, the mental capability. It’s a great, important attribute for a box-to-box midfielder and she does it as well as anyone else.”
Horan’s also shown the ability to be a playmaker when Sinclair isn’t operating in the No. 10 role — she just hasn’t had many chances to show it. But this assist to Tyler Lussi against the Utah Royals suggests she could produce some defense-splitting passes if her role in the Thorns’ system ever changed.
But goals and assists aren’t even the reason that Horan is likely to win the league MVP award. It’s her all-around contribution to the Thorns.
“She’s so strong in so many areas that if she’s having a rough day in one or two areas, she just takes care of the other five or six,” Parsons says. “Instead of being subjective, the statistics show that she impacts the game so much. If you stop her having the ball, then she’ll go and win it off someone because she’s good in that area.”
He’s right. Horan’s 297 duels won leads the league by a lot. For perspective, the league’s second-most prolific ball-winner, McCall Zerboni, has 203. The other defensive midfielder in Opta’s league best XI, Allie Long, has 157. Desiree Scott, who Parsons cites as one of the league’s best defensive midfielders, has 84.
Horan, a former striker (and a superb one), doesn’t exactly like being categorized as a defensive player in any way. “I don’t play a defensive role,” she told SB Nation in May when asked about having more defensive responsibility than in past years. She doesn’t care for the stat that she leads the league in duels won either. “Honestly, I’ve just been trying to improve all parts of my game, and a statistic is just a statistic,” Horan said. “But that’s great, I always want to be winning the ball and doing what I can in the middle of the park for my team.”
And she has a case beyond her goals for not being a particularly defensive player either. Horan is second in the league with 972 passes completed, with over 40 percent of her passes going forward. She’s an attack-minded midfielder who also just happens to be the best ball-winner in the league by several orders of magnitude.
“I can’t picture myself trying to prepare against her,” Parsons says, before explaining why Horan’s work rate and complete game make her unique. “There’s been special players in the league — Kim Little for Seattle, it took me a few years to figure out how to slow her down. But she was more of a player that was going to affect the game on just the offensive side. Or if you’ve got a really good defensive player in there, [Jen] Buszkowski or Scott from Kansas City, [Jess] Fishlock a couple years ago for Seattle when she played lower. You just avoid central areas to get around them. But Lindsey goes and gets everywhere.”
And incredibly, Horan is just 24 years old. Parsons says that “we’re probably three or four years away from seeing her best, which is really scary.” He’s probably right. If she can score 13 goals from 50 shots, imagine if she was put into a position to get as many shots off as Kerr or Williams? If she can play passes like the assist to Lussi in Utah, imagine if she played a role where she had to do that more often? What if Horan figures out how to get that shot volume or those chances to play through balls without changing her role at all? Horan is already the best all-around player in the USWNT pool, and she looks like she’s on the path to becoming the most complete player the women’s game has ever seen.
If the Thorns beat their rivals for the second week in a row on Saturday, Horan is likely to be the key component. Even if she doesn’t get into the box score at all, she’ll find three other ways to impact the game. That’s why she’s the first name on the team sheet for USWNT manager Jill Ellis, and that’s why she should be the NWSL MVP.