Morgan Brian Reflects On World Cup Whirlwind

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Morgan Brian
Morgan Brian, the youngest player on the U.S. Women’s National Team’s World Cup roster at 22, started the final three games. ~ Photo courtesy of USsoccer.com

In the weeks leading up to the World Cup in Canada, Virginia soccer star Morgan Brian knew her classmates were preparing to walk the Lawn in Charlottesville. Graduation fell right in the middle of the U.S. Women’s National Team’s training and send-off games in preparation for what became a historic run to the World Cup title.

For a moment, it stung to miss the big day with her class. At 22 years old, however, Brian knew that she had an opportunity very few people in the world could experience. When it resulted in winning the World Cup and becoming a national sports heroine too? It’s safe to say it has been an unbelievable summer for the Georgia native.

“It’s pretty amazing,” Brian said. “I was telling people the other day there was a point in time I think in May when we were in camp and playing send-off games and obviously my entire class graduated this year in May and, for me, I was a little bit upset not to be there because it’s one of those things you don’t want to miss. But at the same time, it put things in perspective for me to think I’m getting an opportunity of a lifetime as a 22 year old to participate in a World Cup. Graduation is great and everything, but obviously school is always there and I can go back and graduate. Not everyone can participate in a World Cup and then obviously be World Champions too.”

Brian, who juggled trips around the world with college and college soccer throughout her career, isn’t waiting too long to finish off her own Virginia degree. She needs 27 credits to complete her Kinesiology studies in the Curry School and she’ll be back in Charlottesville this fall to take a full class schedule of 15 credits. That will put her one semester away from finishing and she hopes to have that done by the end of the following year.

“I’m coming back in the fall,” Brian said. “I’m going to be taking a full load. … I’m going to be there right after the NWSL season and obviously we have the victory tour, but I’ll be there in between all of that. I have 27 credits left so I’m going to take 15. In January, hopefully I’ll be up with the team for Olympic qualifying – obviously I have to make the team first, but if I do, I’ll be with them for a while. I might just do the rest online. My goal is to be done after next fall. I’m glad I only have 27 credits left. That’s less than a year and I was gone for way more time. I’m glad I’m not that far behind.”

Brian earning a spot on the Olympic qualifying roster seems like a formality after the World Cup. She became a key figure for the U.S. Women’s National Team during the knockout rounds, starting the final three games against China, Germany, and Japan. She received the starting chance when fellow midfielder Lauren Holiday was forced to sit with a red card.

Analysts widely praised Brian’s play as a critical turning point in the tournament for the team. Once she entered the line-up as a holding midfielder, it led to a tactical shift in formation and helped connect the stout defensive back line with the creative offensive options up the field. That provided a spark for the attack and, in particular, it allowed Carli Lloyd to play with more freedom as an attacking midfielder. Lloyd went on to win the Golden Boot as she scored goals in each of the final three games. That included a hat trick in the clincher against Japan.

The holding midfielder role is not where Brian has spent the majority of her career. On the younger national teams and at Virginia, Brian played as an attacking midfielder and needless to say, she was really good at it. She is the only player in Virginia history with 40 goals and 40 assists with 125 points in her Cavalier career (41 goals, 43 assists) after all. She also won the Hermann Trophy given to the nation’s best college player in consecutive years.

Still, she looked like a natural in the holding role thanks to her touch and understanding of space.

“It wasn’t really a quick transition. I’ve been playing that role in the midfield I would say with the U.S. for quite some time,” Brian said. “It’s something I’ve had to really embrace. Obviously I’m used to playing attacking mid and they’re very different so for me it was more embracing it and really take hold to be that player and the role that they needed to play. I think that’s what I did in the World Cup. Obviously, you want to be the best you can and do what the team needs to win and that’s what our team needed. So for me it was an easy thing to wrap my head around and try to be the best holding mid I could.”

Brian’s Virginia ties helped her slide comfortably into the role too. Steve Swanson, UVa’s long-time coach and the head coach of the Under-20 national team that featured Brian as well, served as the U.S. team’s midfield coach. That meant the Cavalier connection worked together in preparation for the knockout matches.

She also was able to share Virginia stories with fellow Hoo Becky Sauerbrunn.

“It’s definitely more comforting, especially with Steve being there because he’s the one I’ve dealt with and spent so much time around the past four years at Virginia and being on the Under-20 team,” Brian said. “It was obviously relaxing to have him there and Becky. Becky and I talked about Virginia a lot and she had Steve too [as a coach] so we can back and forth and understand each other on that level. Steve being there is different too with how much I’ve been around him and gotten to know him. I’ve seen him more than I’ve seen probably anyone, including my family. So it’s been nice to have them there. He’s such a good coach and such an asset for the U.S.”

The rest, of course, is history. The U.S. Women’s National team defeated China 1-0, Germany 2-0, and Japan 5-2 to win the World Cup with Brian and Sauerbrunn each in the starting line-up. Both played every minute of every match. The victory against Japan aired on Fox to an average of 25.4 million viewers, the most viewed soccer game ever on American TV.

The interest levels led to a series of honors and events celebrating the team’s accomplishments. The team was recognized in Los Angeles first after leaving Canada and later returned to California for the ESPY Awards where they were named the best team for 2015.

In between, the entire team was featured in a ticker-tape parade in New York City and appeared on Good Morning America. Held along the Canyon of Heroes in Lower Manhattan, the city last honored a group of national athletes with a parade after the 1984 Olympics and this was the first such parade to honor a women’s team. Thousands lined the streets and many more watched the ground-breaking event on television.

“It was insane,” Brian said. “After the parade, I think we all just sat there in awe. We didn’t really know what to expect for the parade because it was put together so quickly but I think it exceeded every single expectation that we had. It was probably a lot of the girls, including myself, one of the best days we’ve ever been a part of. It was so cool to see how many people tuned in, came to the parade, and were just so crazy and supportive of us and yelling and chanting. It was just really cool to see.”

The team also received a spot on the cover of Sports Illustrated. In fact, each player on the team received their own individual cover. Brian’s mother had to go to three grocery stores to find one of her daughter’s iconic covers.

“I don’t even know – once we saw that they were doing for us,” Brian said. “I mean you grow up looking at Sports Illustrated covers and never imagining yourself on one, especially having your own cover. It’s awesome for me personally. It’s awesome for the players personally. And not just personally, but just to grow the game of women’s soccer. I think it’s huge and shows how much the game has grown and how much people were watching and we inspired this summer. I think it’s just cool for us to see the impact that we have.”

Brian, a member of the Houston Dash, and many of her U.S. Women’s National Team teammates have returned to play in front of record crowds for the National Women’s Soccer League. Everywhere the players go, they are drawing attention and that means the World Cup euphoria still hasn’t fully settled. Brian isn’t sure that it will ever fully sink in, at least for another 10 to 15 years she said with a laugh.

“Probably not. Not really,” Brian said. “We’ve had such a whirlwind and we were in all those things last week and the week before after the World Cup, all the celebration things, parades, and we were pretty much [going] every which way. It really hasn’t sunk in. I don’t really know if it ever will.”

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