It’s USWNT captain Lindsey Horan’s last morning in the United States before she catches a flight back to France to join her club team, Lyon. She spends it in a hotel lobby, sitting at a table, talking to The Athletic for an hour about his time leading a top team, how he views his role during this time of transition, and one thing above all:
“Can we think about football?”
Horan spoke almost exactly five months since he was named by then-USWNT head coach Vlatko Andonovski as national team captain alongside Alex Morgan (Horan has received the armband when both are on the field at the same time). The role is the fulfillment of a life goal, but it also seems like a natural outcome, given how often and intensely he thinks about the game.
His first five months in that leadership role were filled with notable departures: that of his World Cup team, that of Andonovski, and the retirements of Megan Rapinoe and Julie Ertz. He was capped with a big addition: US Soccer’s announced hiring of Emma Hayes as head coach.
Horan, now 29 years old and with 139 senior international caps under his belt, is part of a middle camp: too experienced to be a newcomer and too new to be on the verge of leaving. It’s his generation, which also includes Rose Lavelle, Emily Sonnett and others, that must keep the team’s signature fire, that USWNT DNA, burning even as the team undergoes a serious rethink after its worst finish in the world Cup.
Interview with Vlatko Andonovski: “At one point I thought: ‘Do I really love this game anymore?’
“We have to continue with that,” she says of herself and her midway colleagues. “You have to be on this team for a while to know what the fuck it takes… it’s one of the most competitive national teams you can be a part of.”
Nobody on the team talks about starting from scratch. It’s just that they need more ways to win. More than mindset or fitness levels, more than a never die approach. Horan said that’s what his first conversations with Hayes were about. And that’s why he wants to talk about soccer and how the USWNT can bounce back, not just by playing better, but by thinking more.
“We’ve been so successful for so long in a certain way of playing, that attack and transition,” Horan says. “We have had individual brilliance. We’ve had football players on the field and real players who want to play and everything fell into place or it would always work, or our DNA would take us to this place where we came out victorious because our mentality was so fucking good.”
The game is changing and Horan recognizes it. She praises Portugal’s level of play in the World Cup, the investment in the game in Spain and other European countries, and the high level of promising American talent (specifically citing 19-year-old San Diego Wave forward Jaedyn Shaw). . . If there was a theme for Horan and the rest of the USWNT in that final camp of the year, it was repetitive: No one really knows this team’s ceiling.
“Even in these last few games, you see little flashes of that, but it’s the end product, continuing to do it throughout the game, getting everyone on the same page, not just four or five players,” he says. “If you can develop that more, and it’s inherent to every player on the team, do you look to play the combinations, all these things? I have no idea what this team can do.
“Then there is the mentality aspect, where if the football is not going well, we know we can do it. go. We have players on the field who are faster, stronger and more capable behind us, and we’re going to take it forward, right? “The world is going to be very afraid.”
Those words could cause a stir. In 2019, Ali Krieger suggested that the USWNT’s reserves could take on and beat many other teams at the World Cup, and it was a huge point of contention for a team that received a lot more criticism from across American culture even while celebrating its third consecutive title.
“We have to be one of the most talked about teams,” Horan says. “We are always under the microscope in everything we do or say.”
Individual players can bear the weight of that magnifying glass as much as the team. There’s a clear, yet understandable, vein of frustration on Horan’s part about how his own performances are understood, even by the USWNT’s own fan base. To illustrate his point, Horan mentions that many viewers will take a television commentator’s analysis at face value.
“Most football fans aren’t smart,” he says. “They don’t know the game. They do not understand. (But) it’s getting better and better.”
He pauses briefly, sensing that those words will also cause a stir.
“I’m going to piss off some people,” he continues, “but the game is growing in the U.S. People are becoming more knowledgeable, but most of the time people take what the commentators say, right? My mom does it! She starts laughing. “My mom says, ‘Julie Foudy said you played really well!’ And I’m here, just saying, ‘she was fucking today.’”
When he plays for Lyon in France, Horan says, things are different.
“From what I have heard, people understand my game a little more, the meaning of my football and my way of playing,” he says. “It’s French culture. Everyone watches football. “People know about football.”
However, none of that compares to Horan’s experience at the 2023 World Cup. The outside comments, including those from her former teammate Carli Lloyd, the entrances to stadiums in her custom suits; the tone used in the interviews; corporal lenguage. Everything was surveyed. This time, however, the talk was accompanied by poor performances and bad results.
Carli Lloyd’s criticism of the USWNT is a natural extension of her public persona
Horan says he didn’t mind the outside criticism, but noted that no one but the players could understand what it was like to be on that team. Ultimately, he says he was “perfectly fine” with people finding something to talk about.
“If you don’t back it up on the field, people will come and talk about what you’re doing and what your priorities are,” he says. “Like, ‘Are you getting ready for the game? Do you worry more about this s–?’”
Horan, once again, returns to a seemingly innocent little detail: the traditional pre-match photo of the starting lineup. In the NWSL, more and more teams have begun to take advantage of the opportunity to engage in various shenanigans; something that Horan’s European colleagues use as an example of how Americans don’t take their business seriously. It’s clear that her skin also affects her.
“I want professionalism,” he admitted. “Those little things really irritated me. I don’t think I can do it, and maybe I’m wrong for saying that, I don’t know. It just bothers me. We put a lot into this game and sometimes it’s like a joke.”
She is quick to point out that she won’t be the one to shut it down if it works for others. That’s not what she’s trying to say. It’s just that, ultimately, for her, it’s all about football.
“We need to get back to football. “Football is the most important thing,” says Horan. “So maybe we should eliminate some of that stuff for now. “We need to focus on the game, we need to focus on being the best we can be.”
As captain, Horan can help achieve that. It’s a role he’s grown into, even if he’s struggled to understand it clearly in the months between Andonovski’s departure and Hayes’ hiring.
Hayes has not officially started yet and will not coach in games until her job as Chelsea head coach ends along with the European season in May. But Hayes’ visit to Horan and the rest of the team in December helped clarify the process, Horan says. She also gave Horan the opportunity to open the lines of communication, to admit that sometimes she didn’t feel like she was in complete control, that she hadn’t been handed the reins.
“I always felt like he was someone who could really touch every player and bring out the best in them and try to make them the best they could be,” Horan says. “I’m not going to be like the rah-rah speeches, all that nonsense. Becky (Sauerbrunn) and I are probably a little similar in that. I’m probably a little crazier in the field. “I want to make sure I am the leader I want to be and that no one tries to turn me into something else.”
Before Andonovski gave her the armband (a move made in part because veteran captain Sauerbrunn missed the World Cup due to a lingering foot injury), Horan told her that receiving the armband wouldn’t change her or how the players could to talk with her. What would change, she told him, is the tone she would set. She wanted to be a role model.
“I’m not going to be a coach’s captain, I’m going to be a player’s captain,” she told Andonovski. So if that wasn’t what he wanted, then he shouldn’t make her captain.
Horan has kept his word since interim head coach Twila Kilgore stepped in, leaning on Morgan, Lavelle and Sonnett to make them part of the transition process. He has also empowered relative newcomers to the team. Normally reticent center Naomi Girma, 23, said Horan “encouraged me to just find my voice.”
“A lot of these new young players are going to have huge roles, even in these Olympics,” Horan says. “How on earth can we get the best out of them to get on the podium? “It’s been a crazy place, but this is a really exciting role for me because I felt like this is what I’m meant to do.”
The team has four months until Hayes takes over and six months until the Olympics. The sprint is underway for this huge group project to restore the team to the top, before looking ahead to 2027 and a World Cup that could be held at home. Every voice is important to Horan, from Horan to Lavelle, Morgan, Girma, Shaw and beyond.
“We need to do everything we can to improve, to improve each other, while maintaining standards,” Horan says. “We need to change the whole culture we had before the last World Cup and going to these Olympic Games because we need to win. And that starts now.”
(Photo: James Gilbert/Getty Images)