It’s USWNT captain Lindsey Horan’s final morning in the States before a flight back to France to rejoin Lyon, her club team. She’s spending it in a hotel lobby, tucked away at a table, talking to The Athletic for an hour about her time leading a team in the spotlight, how she sees her role during this time of transition, and one thing above all:
“Can we think about the football?”
Horan was speaking almost exactly five months since being named by then-USWNT head coach Vlatko Andonovski as captain of the national team alongside Alex Morgan (Horan has been getting the armband when both are on the field at the same time). The role is the fulfillment of a life goal, but also seems like a natural outcome, given how often, and how intensely, she thinks about the game.
Her first five months in that leadership role were full of notable exits: her team’s from the World Cup, Andonovski’s, and the retirements of Megan Rapinoe and Julie Ertz. It was capped with a big addition: U.S. Soccer’s announced hiring of Emma Hayes as head coach.
Horan, now 29 years old and with 139 senior national team caps under her belt, is part of an in-between camp: too experienced to be a newcomer, and too new to be on the way out. It’s her 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 re-think after its worst ever World Cup finish.
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“We have to continue that,” she says of herself and fellow in-betweeners. “You have to be amongst this team for a while to know what the f— that takes… it’s one of the most competitive national teams to be a part of.”
No one on the team is talking about starting from scratch. It’s just that they need more ways to win. More than mentality or fitness levels, more than a never-say-die approach. That’s what Horan said her early conversations with Hayes have been about. And that’s why she wants to talk about football, 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 that we play, that attack and transition,” Horan says. “We’ve had individual brilliance. We’ve had soccer players on the field and real players that want to play and it all kind of meshed together or it would always work out, or our DNA would take us to this place where we come out on top because our mentality was so f—ing good.”
The game is changing, and Horan recognizes this. She praises Portugal’s level of play at the World Cup, the investment into the game in Spain and other European countries, and the high level of up-and-coming U.S. 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 a repetitive one: no one actually knows the ceiling of this team.
“Even in these past few games, you see little glimpses of that, but it’s the final product, continuing to do that throughout the game, getting everyone on the same page, not just four or five players,” she says. “If you can develop that more, and it’s inherent in every single player on the team, you’re looking to play the combinations, all of these things? No idea what this team can do.
“Then you have the mentality aspect on top of it, where if the football is not going well, we know that we can freakin’ go. We have players on the field that are faster, stronger, capable in behind, and we’re gonna gut it out, right? The world is going to be very fearful.”
Those words could cause a stir. In 2019, Ali Krieger suggested the USWNT substitutes could take on and beat multiple other teams at the World Cup, and it was a massive point of contention for a team that got plenty more criticism from across American culture even as it was celebrated for its third consecutive title.
“We have to be one of the most talked about teams,” Horan says. “We’re always in the magnifying glass on every single thing we do or anything we say.”
Individual players can bear the brunt of that magnifying glass just as much as the team can. There’s a clear, though understandable, vein of frustration from Horan over how her own performances are understood, even from the USWNT’s own fanbase. To illustrate her point, Horan brings up that many viewers will take a television commentator’s analysis at face value.
“American soccer fans, most of them aren’t smart,” she says. “They don’t know the game. They don’t understand. (But) it’s getting better and better.”
She takes a brief pause, sensing that those words, too, will cause a stir.
“I’m gonna piss off some people,” she continues, “but the game is growing in the U.S. People are more and more knowledgeable, but so much of the time people take what the commentators say, right? My mom does it!” She breaks into laughter. “My mom says, ‘Julie Foudy said you had such a good game!’ And I’m here, just going, ‘I was f—ing s— today.’”
When playing with Lyon in France, Horan says, things are different.
“From what I’ve heard, people understand my game a little bit more, a sense of my football and the way I play,” she says. “It is the French culture. Everyone watches football. People know football.”
None of that, though, compares to Horan’s experience at the 2023 World Cup. The outside commentary, including from her own former teammate Carli Lloyd, the entrances into stadiums in their custom suits; the tone used in interviews; the body language. Everything was scrutinized. This time, though, the talk was accompanied by bad performances, and bad results.
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Horan says she wasn’t bothered by the outside criticism, but noted no one else but the players could understand what it was like to be on that team. Ultimately, she says it felt “perfectly fine” that people would find something to talk about.
“If you’re not backing it up on the field, people are gonna come and talk s— about what you’re doing, where your priorities are,” she says. “Like, ‘Are you getting ready for the game? Are you caring more about this s—?’”
Horan, again, comes back to a small, seemingly innocuous detail: The traditional pre-match starting XI photo. In the NWSL, more and more teams have started using the occasion for various hijinks; something that Horan’s European teammates bring up as an example of Americans not taking their business seriously. It’s clear that it gets under her skin, too.
“I want professionalism,” she admits. “Those little things, they really irked me. I don’t think I could do it, and maybe I’m wrong in saying that, I don’t know. It just bothers me. We put so much into this game, and it’s just like a joke sometimes.”
She’s quick to point out she’s not going to be the one who shuts 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 about the football.
“We need to get back to the football. The football is the most important thing” Horan says. “So maybe we should knock some of the s— out for now. We need to focus on the game, we need to focus on being the absolute best we can be.”
As captain, Horan can help enact that. It’s a role she’s clearly grown into, even as she has struggled to understand it in the months between Andonovski’s exit and Hayes’ hiring.
Hayes hasn’t officially started yet, and won’t coach in games until after her job as Chelsea’s head coach ends along with the European season in May. But Hayes’ December visit with Horan and the rest of the team helped clarify the process, Horan says. It also gave Horan a chance to open up the lines of communication, to admit that sometimes she didn’t feel like she had full control, that she hadn’t been handed the reins.
“I always felt like I was someone that could really touch on every single player and get the best out of them and try to make them the best that they could be,” Horan says. “I’m not going to be like the rah-rah speeches, all that nonsense. Becky (Sauerbrunn) and me are probably a little similar in that. I’m probably a little more crazy on the field. I want to make sure I’m the leader that I want to be, and no one’s trying to make me something else.”
Before Andonovski gave her the armband — a move made in part because longtime captain Sauerbrunn missed the World Cup due to a lingering foot injury — Horan told him that getting the armband wouldn’t change her, or how players could talk to her. What it would change, she told him, is the tone it 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 players’ captain,” she told Andonovski. So if that wasn’t what he wanted, then he shouldn’t make her a captain.
Horan has lived up to her word since interim head coach Twila Kilgore stepped in, leaning on Morgan, Lavelle and Sonnett to make them part of the transitional process. She has empowered the team’s relative newcomers, too. The normally-reticent 23-year-old center back Naomi Girma said Horan “encouraged me just to find my voice.”
“A lot of these new young players are going to have big freaking roles, even in this Olympics,” Horan says. “How the hell do we get the best out of them to go put us on the podium? It’s been a crazy place, but this is a really exciting role for me because I’ve felt like this is what I’m meant to do.”
The team has four months until Hayes takes over, and six until the Olympics. The sprint is very much on for this massive group project to re-establish the team at the top, before looking ahead to 2027 and a World Cup that could be hosted at home. Every voice matters to Horan, from Horan to Lavelle to Morgan to Girma to Shaw and beyond.
“We need to be doing everything we possibly can to be improving, to make each other better, holding the standards,” Horan says. “We need to change every bit of culture that we had prior to the last World Cup and going into this Olympics because we need to win. And that starts now.”
(Photo: James Gilbert/Getty Images)