The sobs were audible. Chubby tear-stained cheeks visible via Skype. On her first of many lonely nights at 10 Rue de Poissy, in an apartment 10 miles west of Paris, long before she became a reticent U.S. national team star, an 18-year-old girl from Colorado called her mom and cried.
It was September of 2012 when Lindsey Horan first wondered what the hell she had done. Months earlier, she had barged into her mother’s bedroom at a similarly nocturnal hour, flicked on the lights, and revealed the biggest decision of her life. She had turned down the most prestigious college scholarship in women’s soccer. Turned down a well-worn path to USWNT stardom, and instead chosen an untrodden one, all because of a dream. So in late August, to fulfill it, Horan flew an ocean and half a continent away from home, to a sprawling European metropolis, its culture and intricacies capable of swallowing up even the most mature foreign teenager. She was there to do something no American woman had ever done: Play soccer, professionally, straight out of high school. For PSG. On a six-figure contract.
But before she could, not two weeks into her trailblazing adventure, the club moved her out of a host family’s house, into the apartment on Rue de Poissy. And with her first evening alone winding down, she came to a problematic realization.
She had no bed sheets.
So she cried. Clicked Skype. Dialed mom, for one of several hundred emotional transatlantic calls that immediately became daily routine. She slept on towels that night, with a thought coursing through her mind.
With a decision no other American girl had ever made came a journey no other American girl had ever embarked on, a journey armed with challenges no other American girl had ever faced. Challenges as complex as soccer drills, explained only in French, defenders and profanities bombarding her with equal venom; and challenges as simple as grocery runs. Or cooking. Or a search for a fitted sheet.
For weeks, they consistently brought Lindsey Horan to tears. “Not that I was depressed,” she recalls six years later. “But I was homesick.”
But the journey, in part because of those unprecedented challenges, led her to a podium in Portland, an MVP trophy in hand. It led her to world player of the year shortlists; to the cusp of World Cup stardom; and, last fall, to a hotel lobby in Raleigh, where, sporting a black “E♀UALITY” t-shirt and an effortless smile, she reflected on her odyssey using both words and a hand motion: Up and down, up and down, the wave-like movement representing the trajectory of her rise.
“There were so many learning experiences,” Horan says of her time 5,000 miles outside her comfort zone. And in so many ways, she’s stronger because of them.
The most remarkable aspect of Horan’s story isn’t anything that transpired on glistening swaths of French grass. It isn’t her unique footballing blend of physical prowess and artistry. It isn’t a starting point or a final destination. It’s an incongruity – between the profile of a prototypical pioneer and the profile of this one.
Horan, in her own words, “wasn’t outgoing whatsoever” as a kid growing up in Golden, Colorado. When an overflowing soccer schedule relented, her most common weekend diversion involved smuggling food into a movie theater with her best friend. When she arrived in Paris, she’d snuggle up in her room with TV shows or soccer streams. And when her first American teammate, Tobin Heath, arrived at PSG, Horan was the last to greet her – with minimal eye contact, in the corner of the room, timidity and nerves obstructing words.
Heck, when organized footy first enticed her, 5-year-old Lindsey would only play if her mom, Linda, signed up to coach.
“So shy,” Horan says now of her younger self.
Soccer, though, has transformative power. It reshapes personalities, cracks shells. And Horan, from a young age, was “just obsessed” with it. She and her older brother, Michael, would play in backyards and basement hallways. Linda remembers Michael’s friends retiring to the house after hours of friendly competition and marveling to him: “Man, your sister’s tough.”
The obsession broadened around age 11 when a club coach with the Colorado Rush, Tim Schulz, gave Horan an assignment: Don’t just play the game fanatically; watch it as well. Schulz mentioned Barcelona and a 17-year-old phenom named Lionel Messi. Horan became an OG Messi fangirl – “never a bandwagon[er],” she clarifies – with multiple jerseys, a scarf, a Barca flag and posters still adorning the walls of her childhood bedroom to this day.
Then, soon after her European football indoctrination, Horan realized this magical world in which she’d immersed herself through TV screens was in the same universe as hers. After a club practice, Schulz told Horan and her teammates that one day, one of them would play professionally, perhaps overseas. Which led to her declaration, in the car on the way home: “Mom, that’s gonna be me.”
Over the coming years, she’d occasionally reiterate her ambition. And after one regional coach literally laughed at it, she pursued it compulsively. After a youth national team coach cut her, leaving her in tears for three days, she became almost possessed. She’d rise with the Rocky Mountain sun for 7 a.m. training, rearranging school schedules to accommodate dream-chasing. After her last class of the day, she’d zip to practice with the academy boys from 3-4:30 p.m. Then she was off to her own team. Afterwards, she’d go again, a fourth session in 12 hours, with whoever had the field next, no matter the age group or gender.
She prioritized training over school dances and family dinners, instead returning home late at night for microwavable meals. She endured criticism and rude comments from opponents for playing with a boys team. “Everything I did was for soccer,” Horan says. She fit in whatever homework she could.
And that was all before what she now calls “the most stressful year of my life.”
It began with a phone call, at Denver International Airport, with vacation mere hours away. The Horans were checking in for their flight. Their destination? Barcelona, then a European cruise. The occasion? Grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary.
But now Lindsey’s phone was buzzing. Schulz’s voice was coming through it, delivering fantastic yet inconvenient news: He’d negotiated an opportunity for her to train with Lyon, the reigning European champions.
“You’re kidding me,” Lindsey immediately thought. “When is it?”
What followed was a 12-day trip that Linda admits “was horrible.” While she and her husband – Lindsey’s father, Mark – argued about whether to let their 17-year-old daughter go to France alone, their daughter fretted about measuring up to top pros. The vacation impeded preparation. Lindsey’s solution was a small-sided field on the cruise ship’s deck that hosted daily pickup games. Her parents’ solution was to arrange for Erik Bushey, one of her club coaches back home, to accompany her to France.
So Horan jetted from Barcelona to Lyon, and eventually trekked up into the Alps, with big eyes and almost zero French words in her linguistic arsenal. She ran and biked miles at altitude, the preseason fitness regimens startling to a girl who’d never sniffed a proper strength and conditioning program. She battled with and against French national teamers while French instructions rippled off tongues and over her head.
And yet the brutality, the challenges, the draining work … they would have broken most 17-year-olds. But they attracted Horan.
Over two grueling weeks, she earned a four-year contract offer. She and her family eventually decided it came a year too early. Back in Colorado, with a deadline looming, and with parents pushing the importance of at least completing high school, Lindsey sat down with some of her best friends, cried, hugged them, and said through sniffles, “I don’t want to leave you guys.” With fulfillment of her dream at her fingertips, she bravely turned it down.
But she still yearned for it. The opportunity lingered, and therefore a decision – go to college, or turn pro? – loomed throughout senior year. The top-ranked player in her recruiting class, Horan committed to the University of North Carolina. The program’s track record – 20 of 30 national titles, 21 American World Cup stars produced – fueled unimaginable pressure to honor the pledge. To do what every other player in the history of the U.S. women’s national team had done. To take the safe route. To conform.
But as she sought advice, heard opinions – most nudging her toward Chapel Hill – she found herself thinking: “No, you’re wrong. I know what I want.”
“In the end,” she says, “I knew what I wanted the whole time. I needed a push.” It came during an hours-long discussion with Bushey after training. Coach did most of the talking, impartially laying out pros and cons. Pupil listened. And cried.
And drove home. Linda remembers it being after midnight. “My mom’s in bed,” Horan recounts. “I turn on all her lights. And I was like, ‘Mom, I made a decision!’ ”
Linda, still groggy, wondered: “Am I having a dream?”
“She’s half asleep,” Horan continues. “And I’m like, ‘I’m going pro!’ ”
The French adventure
Lindsey Horan, in case it wasn’t already clear, is a crier. She wept while telling her best friends she wasn’t ready to leave them, then a year later while realizing she was. She wept when a youth national team coach told her she wasn’t good enough. She wept without bed sheets, without family on Thanksgiving, without English-speaking friends consistently by her side. And on the Friday before her maiden away trip with PSG, the list grew.
Horan had snubbed UNC for Europe. Lyon, however, had maxed out its international roster slots. With the back-to-back European champs no longer an option, Paris Saint-Germain swooped in to seal a deal. Horan, despite an arrival delayed by a July knee surgery, quickly earned a place in the starting 11.
Before her professional bow, though, was a trip to France’s western tip, to tiny Guingamp. And before her team’s match was her other team’s match.
One of many things Horan sacrificed to turn pro was a crack at the 2012 Under-20 World Cup. As former and future teammates marched onto a field in Tokyo for the final that Friday, Horan sat in a hotel lobby, staring up at “this tiny-ass TV in the corner of the lounge area.” As seconds ticked away on a U.S. victory, a few PSG players joined her and remarked: “Oh, you were supposed to be there!”
Horan forced a laugh. Tried to stifle tears. Couldn’t.
“I just started bawling my eyes out,” she recalls. “Like, ‘Oh my gosh, what did I do? I’m in Guingamp.’ It was a nightmare.”
UNC also won a national championship that fall. Meanwhile, Horan would retreat to her room, resort to frozen foods or McDonald’s, too afraid of a short grocery store expedition. Adapting to a foreign land as a timid teen, she says, “was one of the toughest things I’ve ever done.”
On the field, assimilation came quicker, but was nonetheless turbulent. At training, Horan would wait for English explanations that never came. Some of her first French words were the soccer terms for “man on” (sa vient) and “space” (sol) – but of course she mixed them up, and would turn into pressure, or hurry passes unnecessarily, until realizing the interpretive error.
She also had to reform her diet. “I was the worst with my nutrition and fitness,” Horan admits. “I knew nothing about it, nor did I care about it.” And the club’s technical staff, led by head coach Farid Benstiti, didn’t care about communicating fitness goals respectfully. “They were just terrible,” Horan says. “Especially with female players, they were just [saying], ‘You need to lose weight, you need to get thinner, you need to run more.’
“But it was more [about] how you were seen and not how it was helping you play,” Horan says of the demands. At one practice, Benstiti told her she was benched until she shed weight. Afterward, she called mom and said she wanted to quit.
As she struggled with adaptations, however, she largely found comfort in football. (Horan uses both “football” and “soccer” interchangeably.) With her four-a-day practice habit reduced to one per day, she would sneak in solo sessions. (“Don’t tell Farid,” she jokes.) In late September, she scored on her debut. She bagged five goals in her first five league appearances, and 17 in 20 by the end of her first season.
And in January, she received a godsend in the form of Heath’s arrival. After awkward intros and unwelcoming beginnings, the two Americans bonded. They explored the city. They frequented a nearby Indian restaurant, so frequently that after a while they didn’t even have to speak to order. Heath would get buttered chicken, Horan tikki masala. “Every time,” Horan remembers with a smile. They’d sit and talk for hours, hours that felt unexceptional at the time, but that in retrospect, Heath says, “were really special.”
As Horan eased into her new life, however, soccer began pelting her with adversity. After two USWNT appearances in 2013, she went 23 months without a senior call-up. U.S. head coach Jill Ellis stated publicly that Horan’s decision to play abroad – despite accelerating her development – hurt her national team chances. Then, as Ellis called in roster after roster comprising exclusively U.S.-based players, Horan suffered a January knee injury that ruled her out of 2015 World Cup contention.
Instead, she trekked to Canada as a fan, and was overcome with mixed emotions. “I’ll never forget being in the stands as the national anthem started to play, just looking down onto the field, and seeing all the women with their hands over their hearts,” she recalled in a Players Tribune article. “And I mean … I lost it. I wanted to be out there so bad that I actually started to cry.”
The dream realized
In a few weeks, one of those women will be her. On June 11 in Reims, 90 miles along highway A4 from the city that hosted so much suffering and yet so much growth, Lindsey Horan will stand with her right hand over her heart. She’ll face an American flag. She’ll sing. And then she’ll justify all the four-practice days and offseason grinds; all the homesickness and risk; all the courage required to follow that heart and take a road never traveled.
In January 2016, Horan left PSG after three and a half seasons as a prolific striker – and after a week of teary-eyed goodbyes. She arrived in Portland, to play for the National Women’s Soccer League’s Thorns, at the same age a typical college grad would – but with a “reading [of] the game, game intelligence, game understanding,” says Thorns coach Mark Parsons, that “was a big, big difference from the player you normally get at that age.”
Since, Horan has morphed into a domineering midfielder the likes of which 21st-century women’s soccer has never seen. She sits deep and dictates play, then bursts forward into the attacking third, a 6, 8, 9 and 10 all packed into one 5-foot-9, 24-year-old frame. “There is no midfielder in the world that has all the elite tools that she has,” Parsons says. And numbers reinforce his passionate praise. In the NWSL in 2018, Horan touched the ball more than any other player; won it more than any other player; and won more aerial duels, too. She completed the second-most passes and second-most dribbles, and scored the third-most goals. Her all-around excellence earned her an MVP award and 26 consecutive USWNT appearances, a streak interrupted only by minor injury.
The positional changes, Horan says, actually haven’t been difficult. Not for someone who got tastes of everything from center back to center forward growing up. Not for someone who’s “glued to the TV any time football is on”; who consumes women’s and men’s games, as fan or student; who’ll sometimes do both, greeting Barca goals with yelps, but also recording matches and re-watching for educational purposes. “Watching football is such an underrated thing to help you grow as a player,” she says. And “if you know the game,” she later continues, “if you’re a football player, you can play anywhere.”
There’s a certain confidence about Horan nowadays, a confidence she credits Parsons with instilling. It shows up in the way she purposefully checks to the ball or attacks crosses, but also away from the pitch. Soccer, throughout her life, is the one thing that has consistently pulled her out of her shell, into a comfort zone. With self-belief in her soccer soaring, and with close friends almost always close by, she is no longer that timid teen who boarded a plane to Paris seven years ago.
Which is not to say the accolades that accompany success don’t make her uncomfortable. She “absolutely hated” the fanfare that came with last year’s MVP announcement the day before the NWSL Final. She has “a love-hate relationship” with her nickname, “The Great Horan” – the brainchild of U.S. teammate Rose Lavelle via Twitter shenanigans. “More hate,” grins Lavelle, who considers it one of her “proudest accomplishments.” With the moniker now adorning T-shirts, Horan has reluctantly embraced it. But “she still does not like the spotlight,” her mother says – even if she’s getting used to it.
At times, Horan has wondered whether well-traveled roads would have led her to similar success. Whether the homesickness and heartache were necessary. “Any player can make their situation good for them,” she admits. “If I went to UNC, I’m sure I would find a way to make myself better, make things harder, challenge myself. It’s what the player puts into it.
“But then again, where I went, the challenges I went through … experiencing a different culture, language … you can’t get that anywhere else.”
Occasionally, back at 10 Rue de Poissy, or in that Guingamp hotel lobby, it all felt like a “nightmare.”
“That was the best thing for me,” Horan says now. “I do not regret it whatsoever.”
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