Lindsey Horan Headed The USWNT Into Its Next Era

The last time we saw Lindsey Horan score a non-penalty goal in an international game that mattered, she was channeling her rage into a bullet header that salvaged a 1-1 draw against the Netherlands in the World Cup group stage. That turned out to be the last goal the USWNT would score at a disappointing, dispiriting World Cup that resulted in the resignation of the team’s manager and an acknowledgement that the Americans had a long climb ahead of them if they wanted to return to their position of dominance in the sport. On Sunday, Horan scored what would turn out to be the USWNT’s final goal of the inaugural Women’s Gold Cup. This goal also rocketed off Horan’s head, but it arrived into happier circumstances, deciding a 1-0 win for the U.S. over Brazil in the tournament final, earning them another trophy.

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What sort of meaning should be appended to the claiming of that trophy is harder to pin down. Yes, it’s true that the USWNT has won every CONCACAF tournament it has ever entered, which would have made a loss in Sunday’s final an unprecedented failure. But it’s also true that CONCACAF, like the rest of the world, is no longer full of the kind of bozo programs that USWNT spent the previous decades feasting on. The Americans were comprehensively beaten by Mexico in the group stage of this tournament, and Sunday’s game was the kind of nervy, unglamorous affair typical of finals between two evenly matched squads. Brazil could make a compelling argument that their performance deserved a better result, but finals are so often decided by one or two moments breaking the right way rather than a holistic performance. For the USWNT, the ball just happened to find Horan’s head at the right time and place.

While Brazil may feel slightly aggrieved by the result of Sunday’s game, the U.S. should take it as a bookend. If all goes well, Horan’s last two headed goals will act as brackets around a pre-evolutionary era of USWNT soccer. To her credit, interim manager Twila Kilgore suggested as much after Sunday’s game, describing her team’s lifting of the trophy not as the culmination of anything, but as the first step towards something new. “This is a group that’s just getting started,” Kilgore said. “We’ve regrouped, we’ve set new goals, we’ve set a new style of play. We’re working towards something together, and it’s a very public process, and that’s just not easy.”

If there’s reason to believe that Kilgore is right about this version of the USWNT just getting started, it can be found in contributions made by the younger players on the team. Korbin Albert (age 20), Jenna Nighswonger (age 23), and Sam Coffey (age 25) all made the most of their first taste of meaningful international competition. All three were outshone by 19-year-old Jaedyn Shaw, who came away with the competition’s golden ball award and was at the center of the USWNT’s most encouraging goal of the tournament.

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That goal, and the 3-0 win over Colombia it helped decide, is what fans of this team should hold onto. The 2-0 loss to Mexico proved how vulnerable the USWNT’s position in the global hierarchy still is. The waterlogged semifinal win over Canada and Horan’s cup-winning nod proved that this is still a team that can fight and suffer and produce big moments when they are called for. But Shaw’s goal laid out a potentially brighter future, one full of furious pressing and free-flowing attacks and one-touch passes leading to inch-perfect finishes. If all goes well from here, we’ll see a lot more goals like Shaw’s and a lot fewer like Horan’s.

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