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Lindsey Horan’s USWNT showing vs. Portugal could deep-six concerns about Julie Ertz injury

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This was the first game in two months for the U.S. women’s national team, and they won’t play one that matters until another month from now. There was one essential component of Thursday night’s friendly, though, and it was obvious coach Vlatko Andonovski wanted to make sure it was handled before anyone reached the locker room. So he spoke to midfielder Lindsey Horan immediately after the Americans completed a perfunctory 1-0 victory over Portugal.

“I told her she was a monster on the field,” Andonovski said afterward.

He has been in charge less than two years and hasn’t yet handled the USWNT in a major competition. So even with an 18-0-1 record to date, it seems a bit premature to label Andonovski a good coach for the national team. But his zeal to assure Horan she had delivered in the defensive midfield role typically handled by Julie Ertz – the No. 6, in soccer parlance – suggested he might be a good coach to play for at this level.

Andonovski praised Horan (photo below) for excelling in “aerial challenges, intercepting balls, controlling the game from the lower part of the field.” And she did all of that when required. It just wasn’t required all that often.

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Portugal played a low block through most of the game, rarely possessing the ball, even less frequently advancing it past the halfway line. This is not uncommon for those USWNT opponents finding themselves at a massive talent disadvantage, which is the majority of them. The role of the No. 6 is elevated in importance, though, in games against such teams as Sweden, the opening opponent July 21 in the Olympic Games.

Whether Horan will be in this position against Sweden is unclear. Ertz sprained the MCL in her right knee in her first NWSL game a month ago for the Chicago Red Stars, and Andonovski has said he expects her to be healthy in time for the Olympics.

What is certain, though, is the USWNT has almost unreasonable depth at every field position save this one. Tobin Heath, who started on the right side of the front line through the 2019 World Cup campaign is out with an ankle injury. Christen Press filled that spot against Portugal. She owns 145 caps and 60 international goals. Carli Lloyd subbed on for striker Alex Morgan in the 73rd minute; Lloyd has scored more goals than all but five women in the game’s history. Defender Tierna Davidson entered the game at the same time; she excelled in her one 2019 World Cup start and can play left back or in central defense.

When Ertz (photo below) was injured, though, there was no such obvious answer.

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There was reason to believe, though, Horan’s gifts might translate well to that position.

“Julie, of course, always going to be such big shoes to fill,” midfielder Sam Mewis told reporters on a postgame Zoom call. “But I’m proud of Lindsey.”

Horan began her career as a forward for Paris Saint-Germain, then transitioned to an attacking midfield spot after moving to the Portland Thorns. Although she is one of the world’s best, named NWSL most valuable player in 2018, she has been in and out of the starting lineup for the U.S. because the competition for positions is so extreme.

Horan started four of the seven games at the 2019 World Cup, whereas Mewis started five and Rose Lavelle all but one. The latter two have given Andonovski no reason to believe previous coach Jill Ellis had it wrong in deploying the pair so often in the attacking midfield positions; Mewis, in fact, scored the winning goal against Portugal with a sharp header off Press’ corner kick.

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Expanding her repertoire to include the defensive role will give Horan one more avenue into the starting lineup. Her ability to cover ground and her vision and skill to make the sort of passes that launch forward moves allow Horan to play the position the way Xabi Alonso once did for Real Madrid.

The only question is how effective Horan might be at disrupting attacks by the opposition.

Horan got her first chance against Portugal in the 8th minute and surgically swiped the ball, pushing it ahead to Lavelle for a shot that led to a dangerous free-kick opportunity for the U.S. In the 25th minute, Horan gambled she could pull off another such maneuver but failed, leaving the door open for a surge that a better team than Portugal might have punished. A dozen minutes later, Horan expertly disarmed another opposition counter-attack.

“She is never satisfied. She always wants more,” Andonovski said. “The first thing that she asked was when we could watch the video.

“That’s what makes us get better.”

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