Lindsey Horan is only one game into her NWSL career, but has already made a significant mark. Set up in an attacking midfield role, she dazzled on the night: playing a crucial role in Portland's first goal, helping Tobin Heath orchestrate the attack all game, and finishing it off by scoring the match winner.
All of which raises further questions, on a subject that's already been raised a few times around here: should Horan be played in this same attacking role with the national team, too?
Let's take a look at the evidence:
@dagnybrynjars first goal for Thorns. #NWSL #BAONPDX pic.twitter.com/NGeF8TllR7— Womens Football Comp (@Jigsawwill) April 18, 2016
After the Thorns went down to an early goal, they earned an equalizer from Dagny Brynjarsdottir in the 25th minute, on a play that started with a long angled cross from Horan. Far out on the right sideline, she sent the ball across the front of goal, just barely missing the head of Nadia Nadim and landing at the feet of Tobin Heath, who then dropped it back across the face of goal, where it was thumped in by Brynjarsdottir. It was a delicious initial ball from Horan, which sliced right through the middle of Orlando's defense and effectively took two defenders out of the play and created the gap in front of goal. That opening allowed Heath's ball to roll merrily right across the edge of the six yard box unmolested, before being bundled home.
Then, in the 82nd minute, Horan broke the deadlock with a goal of her own, from a quick counter off an Orlando corner. But take a look at the buildup.
You can watch it in the video above. The move starts at 80:42, when Betos collects the corner and the Thorns break. At 80:53, Nadim has just crossed into Orlando territory on the right wing and is surrounded by a sea of purple, with five Pride players in close proximity. Meanwhile, Horan is ghosting through central midfield (you can see her come into the picture at 80:55), drifting into the empty space Orlando has so kindly made for her. That means, when the ball pops up toward Heath at the corner of the penalty area, Horan is all alone in front of goal, just waiting for the ball to be put at her feet by a silky smooth touch from Heath.
Those attacking instincts are superb, and were well-rewarded with a goal. She observed the cluster of Orlando players watching the ball rather than holding a defensive line, trusted her teammates, and moved into the space where the ball would inevitably find her. And when it did, she finished with clinical precision. And, if she had been playing in a more defensively minded role, she never would have made that move. Because her responsibility would have been to provide an outlet for her teammate who is surrounded by purple shirts.
Compare all this to her work for the national team this year, where despite her clear talents, she's mostly seemed to lack a cutting edge. But with Portland, returned to her more natural attacking role, she looked comfortable, calm, and in control. Her movement was excellent off the ball, and she was far more willing to look for an attacking pass, or move into an attacking zone and wait for a sniff of goal.
It's only one game, of course, so it's too early to draw sweeping conclusions. And it's worth noting that Horan already has a significant track record of strong performances at the club level back in France. It was that work which earned her a spot on the national team in the first place. So this isn't new information, precisely. And it remains possible that the crucial difference here is more club vs. country than attack vs. defense.
Still, at the end of the day, a simple question remains: with such an exciting young talent, does it really make sense to play her in a position that neutralizes so many of her strengths? Yes, the holding role is a more pressing need for the national team, but if Horan keeps performing at this level for Portland, Jill Ellis might well want to start reconsidering Horan's best fit into the USWNT system.