Two FIFA Women’s World Cup stars, side by side on Morgan Brian’s record, yet the connecting route proved so far from seamless. Doubt and despondency were ultimately just supporting characters on the United States midfielder’s way back to the summit of her profession this summer, with faith and fortitude continuing to light the way for the Chicago Red Star.
Amidst the euphoria of World Cup success for the U.S. Women’s National Team in July, Morgan Brian gave thanks to God, her husband, family and teammates, the fans, and her club team Chicago Red Stars. The fact that Chicago medical professionals Julie O’Connell and Bria Wanzung were included so heartfelt and so high on the list – ‘I owe everything to you. The trophy is yours just as much as it is mine.’ – was of course telling.
Somewhere on St. Simon’s Island, Georgia, in 1997, the number six from that formidable U.S. squad of 2019 had just started playing soccer. For that diminutive figure to ultimately stand tall atop her profession, first as a central part of the 2015 World Cup win in Canada, it couldn’t possibly have all been plain sailing and pecan pie for the player from the Peach State.
From being the only one from her club team initially left off the Florida State ODP (Olympic Development Program) team, to heart-wrenching big-game losses with a supremely talented and together University of Virginia group she loved. A year after that first World Cup also came the quarter-final exit to Sweden in the Rio Olympics, a game in which she had scored her kick in the shootout before being left sprawled in dejection with her teammates.
In more recent times, though, the 26-year-old has felt stung much deeper by the game she has been immersed in for so long. Injury setbacks, hurt, confusion and uncertainty have made for a less-than-hospitable road back.
Her support system has proven fundamental, and within exactly that lies a certain sense of soundtrack significance and symmetry in how a player lauded on a national scale since her teenage years had to recently rebuild. Specifically, the title of a song treasured by Morgan and husband Fabrice Gautrat.
“We went to see Dan + Shay here in Chicago,” she explained. “That was fun, and they were actually our wedding song – ‘From the Ground Up.’”
She may not lead the show as locker-room DJ like Crystal Dunn, or strum guitar and lock the vocals down like Megan Rapinoe, but music is not an insignificant link for the midfield artist affectionately known as Moe. Steve Swanson, coach of her Virginia Cavaliers and the U.S. team that lifted the Under-20 World Cup in Japan in 2012, once described her as ‘like the conductor of an orchestra,’ with ‘the ability to blend all the different instruments together.’
The spotlight has gone with her from a young age, with the list of accolades through the years longer than the USWNT’s post-final bar tab(s) this summer. Twice named the top collegiate player with the prestigious MAC Hermann Trophy (2013 and 2014), she was the number-one pick in the 2015 NWSL (National Women’s Soccer League) College Draft, turning pro with Houston Dash.
It was her sophomore summer at UVa when she was first called up to the senior national team, and even before she had started college, the 2011 Gatorade High School Athlete/Soccer Player of the Year had been a guest at the star-studded ESPYs. Attention and acclaim on young shoulders, in soccer or various other fields, can weigh heavily, and harder times may subsequently bring a feeling of having to live up to the person others came to see you as.
As Morgan details when asked if that ever felt the case, reaching the highest of peaks her sport has to offer before her pro career had even kicked into life was complex in its own way.
“I think it is difficult, and more so along the lines of I was on the national team, I won a World Cup, I was the youngest player on the team, at the age of 22. At that point in time, I felt like winning a World Cup was my like pinnacle dream, and so to hit that at the age of 22 was awesome, and I’m obviously very grateful for that.
“For me after that, it’s been a rough road, but I think every athlete experiences these things. Fortunately, or unfortunately, however you wanna look at it, I then had my first injury – in my career.
“So, I think it’s just been a learning experience, a lot of ups and downs through that period, but when you look at it, I think I’m pretty blessed to say I’ve experienced an injury for the first time at the age of 23, in my entire career. That was definitely difficult for me, because I’d never experienced not being able to play soccer.
“Obviously having to learn my body and getting older at the same time, there were definitely a lot of learning times that I had to go through. The mental side of it as well when you’re not able to play soccer and do what you do best, that was difficult, and there’s a lot of mental blocks that come with it.
“I think that was the most difficult piece of learning how to deal with and bounce back from that, and getting myself back to my peak form and fitness.”
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Playing all but the group win over Nigeria in the 2015 World Cup, Morgan was there throughout knockout wins over China, Germany, and an ever-so-slightly-memorable 5-2 against Japan in Vancouver. Her introduction to the starting eleven for that China quarter-final was later seen as a pivotal move for Jill Ellis’ side in the tournament.
They both had the same euphoric conclusion, but with her minutes at France 2019 all coming in the 3-0 group victory against Chile in Paris, as well as what led her to even be selected in the squad, the 87-cap international reflects on two clearly contrasting competitions on a personal level.
“I think it felt very different. In 2015, I was a starter for a long time leading up to the tournament, then with coaching changes and coaching decisions I wasn’t, and then obviously I ended up being a starter through the World Cup.
“I definitely knew that I would be needed at some point in the 2015 World Cup, especially because I’d played a large role leading up to it. I felt like I was playing well, I was at my peak form, and hadn’t missed any camps.
“At that point in time I was playing the six, in the defensive midfielder role, so I hadn’t had as much experience in that as I have now. It was definitely a role that I had to embrace and a position I had to learn.
“Going into this World Cup. I’d been in and out of camps, due to my injuries and just not feeling as fit and able to perform, and then I finally made a decision in January to figure it out. I just put my foot down and wanted to get back to being 100 percent me, so I made that decision knowing full well that I might not be able to be a part of the World Cup team.
“That was a difficult decision, obviously not something I thought about overnight, and I’m glad I made it, because it definitely got me on the right track. When I got the call about making the World Cup team I was pleased, obviously so happy, and to be able to get myself back healthy and be a part of it was the key and the goal, so I’m grateful for that.
“Obviously, I was not a part of the entire cycle, in and out and not with the team fully, so I think it was definitely a different role I played, and I knew that going in. I think it was important to embrace that role and know that yes, I could be called on, and to be ready for it, but at the same time it was ‘what can I do to help my teammates and to help and prepare them, and be the best teammate I can be?’ and just kind of know that it’s a different role, for sure.
“It’s the hardest role sometimes!”
Starter or otherwise, those who keep the standards pushed and the spirits high are essentials in a successful squad. There cannot be too many who outdo defender Emily Sonnett in that regard.
Part of Morgan’s UVa team that twice made the NCAA Tournament’s Final Four, the Portland Thorns player can also lay claim to one of her favourite moments of this past summer.
“There were a lot of behind-the-scenes, fun times that we enjoyed, because there is a lot of free time in big tournaments. It was the last practice before the World Cup final that the reserves were playing in, we played this finishing game and Emily Sonnett and I were partners, and there’s this video from there which is hilarious.
“I’ll remember that practice, because it was the last reserves practice of the World Cup, and those were definitely very difficult to play throughout, and we ended the last one with a lot of laughs. I played Sonnett three balls across from the ground…and she whiffed all three of them in a row!
“People were just dying laughing, and it was her left foot, I should say! It was a fun practice and something we’ll probably always remember.”
An NWSL champion with Portland in 2017, Sonnett was the year below Morgan, midfield teammate Danielle Colaprico and others at Virginia, and would become a big part of the chemistry Morgan’s class had made a conscious effort to rebuild in the Hoos team over their four years. From a concerted effort to integrate the freshmen each year, their ‘all in’ motto down in Charlottesville encompassed various aspects, as Kinesiology graduate Morgan recalls.
“We had to dance in the locker room before one of the ACC games, by ourselves in front of the whole team, to a song…I did not wanna do it.”
The overtime win over Florida State in her junior year brought celebrations that seemed to aptly capture that camaraderie. With Morgan playing in Molly Menchel, senior midfielder Annie Steinlage duly struck the game’s only goal past future NWSL keeper Kelsey Wys. It was the Michigan State transfer’s first Hoos goal, and it ended their opponents’ school-record unbeaten run at 17 games. In front of a Klöckner Stadium record crowd of 3,894, Virginia were subsequently the last unbeaten team standing, with the number-one-ranked Cavaliers sealing their first ACC regular-season title.
Then there was the double-overtime 3-2 win against Notre Dame that same year, as Morgan headed home from a corner. With the UVa players sent into raptures, the gleeful, rain-sodden number six slid on her back when she eventually reached about halfway.
A soccer career can indeed fill a player’s life with highs that are nigh on impossible to replicate in most other walks of life. The flipside is it may leave the same person feeling face down in the dirt at other times, with those spine-tingling moments seemingly a world away.
Almost exactly two years ago, Morgan was unveiled as a new signing for the team who have dominated the UEFA Women’s Champions League for some time now, as she joined Olympique Lyonnais on a two-and-a-half-year contract. After such high hopes, playing opportunities would prove sparse, added to the homesickness that being on a different continent and in an unfamiliar culture typically serves up.
“It was difficult in a lot of ways,” she recalled. “Obviously like you said, homesick, the flights are really far, going back and forth to America, with how many camps the US has; all those things are difficult.”
“Not speaking a language, there’s a lot of different things that go into it, but the worst part was I wasn’t playing, and I never really felt I got a chance, so I think that was the odd thing about it. I went over there to play and I didn’t, so I think for me it was almost like ‘if I haven’t even gotten a chance then there’s not really much I can do.’
“At the same time, it was coming into a World Cup year and I needed to be playing games. Our coach (Jill Ellis) had made that clear as well, that I needed to be in games to have a chance to make it, so for me it was a decision that I had to make to make sure that was gonna happen.
“On the opposite side of it, too, was in the French league at the moment, competitive-wise, the games are few and far between, so that’s a difficult one, especially coming from the NWSL, where every time you step on the field anyone can beat anyone; those games bring out the best in you and you get better from it. So, it was definitely an interesting learning process I had to experience myself; it was a good experience that I needed to see.”
Returning in June 2018 for a second stint at Chicago Red Stars, the move also reunited her with the aforementioned Danielle Colaprico, a friend and midfield teammate she had enjoyed so many great times with at Virginia. NWSL play-off semi-finalists last year, 2019 saw Rory Dames’ side break new ground, as the Red Stars reached the season’s final game (ultimately defeated by North Carolina Courage).
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In her music/soccer feature on here in 2016, ‘Danny’ recalled listening to country music in downtime back at the hotel with Morgan during her first senior national team camp. With that and her southern roots taken into account, is it safe to assume it is the genre of choice for Moe?
“Yeah, I definitely like country music. If I’m listening to something on my playlist it’s probably like pop music, country, and probably Christian hits.
“I love Hillsong UNITED, Sam Hunt; I would say those are my two.”
Various pearls of wisdom can be found in country lyrics: ‘You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em.’
‘And you’re the reason our kids are ugly, little darling.’ (Maybe not that last one…)
Having already had duo Dan + Shay play at her wedding, Morgan would branch out somewhat if she could see any artist or band (from all-time) perform.
“I think I would wanna see Sam Smith. I’ve been to Sam Hunt concerts, I’ve been to Rascal Flatts.
“I’ve seen Elton John as well.”
Growing up on an island roughly three miles wide and eight long, Morgan was also an All-State basketball player. At Frederica Academy, her soccer skills were hard to miss, and in her senior high school season alone, she scored 71 goals and claimed 30 assists.
With an older sister, Jennifer, who also played soccer at Armstrong Atlantic, Morgan remembers 3v3 games on the beach as a cornerstone of life back home. Are there any such music memories to go alongside, like the first CD she bought or had in the house?
“Oh my gosh, I have no idea…that’s a great question. I definitely would listen to some Taylor Swift!”
On the USWNT, intensity rarely relents when it is time to get to business, though the opportunities to let loose are keenly snapped up when presented. With the team’s tradition of success comes profile, and the celebrity crossover has at times brought surreal and spectacular experiences through the years.
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Rather than astounded, Morgan votes herself most likely to be oblivious when chance meetings with music stars come around!
“I’m horrible with names of musicians and knowing what people look like, so sometimes I feel like I’ve met people and I’m not even sure who I’m meeting, which I think is a good thing sometimes! I’ve met Ed Sheeran, he was pretty cool; before the 2015 World Cup, when we did Good Morning America.”
Of course, there was also an English encounter on their way to glory in France this year. Games between the two sides date back a long way, but the U.S and the Lionesses have become especially acquainted in recent years, with results routinely close, and England beginning to lay down markers like the 1-0 SheBelieves Cup win in New Jersey in 2017.
The number-one U.S. are currently five places higher in the world rankings, and England are still chasing their first major tournament success, but the World Cup semi-final was for many the most absorbing game of the competition. With VAR controversy, a late penalty save from Alyssa Naeher, a red card, and just a single goal in three separating the teams, 53,512 in the Parc Olympique Lyonnais and millions more watching on TV had seen a real battle.
Morgan offers her thoughts on whether it feels a rivalry has been established.
“I think England has come into their own in the past few years and they’re always really tough to play against. I thought the England game was by far the most back-and-forth, competitive game the U.S. played, and I thought it was a really good game and intense.
“So I think there’s definitely a bit of, I wouldn’t say rivalry, but I think they’re a great team and they’re just gonna keep getting better, especially with their league growing, which is great for the game.”
Rivalry or not, it has been able to authentically develop, though this past World Cup saw certain manufactured elements coming to the fore, particularly ahead of the semi-final. With mainstream coverage of the women’s game continuing to increase, and hitting previously uncharted territory this summer, the more sensational headlines were inevitably sought along the way by non-women’s-soccer-specific outlets.
The attempts to stir up side stories included arrogance being levelled at the U.S. players from some English publications, which as intended, also began spreading on social media. Asked whether much of that was reaching the USWNT, Morgan shares their preferred approach to such potential distractions.
“To be honest, I think a lot of us during big tournaments like that, we get rid of Twitter and Instagram and anything that is kind of outside the bubble, because of that reason. As players, we don’t wanna see things – good, bad, ugly, in between – we just wanna focus on what we’re there to do.
“I think seeing those things in the media, social, what everyone’s saying, is something that kind of will mess with you, so I think everyone has the experience now enough to know that we have to create a bubble and focus on what we know and what we’re there to do.”
Do that they most definitely did. As is the way, they had to meet Sweden on their route, but unlike 2015, they would not cross paths with Australia.
The mention of the Matildas brings us to Lydia Williams, a former Houston Dash teammate of Morgan’s, though much more than that, someone she sees as a friend for life. The Aussie keeper has been a ray of sunshine to many people and she featured on here with characteristic personality at the end of 2016.
In their time at the Dash, she had a liking for catching Morgan by surprise – and filming the evidence! So, as much as the current Reign FC/Melbourne City stopper is very special in her life, does the heart rest easier for Morgan now they are no longer teammates?!
“(Laughing) No, she’s my best friend! So obviously I would love for her – as crazy as she is – I would love to play on the same team as her again.”
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She would be there as well if ‘the conductor’ ever made a song. In this regular question, the interviewee is asked which teammate(s) from their career they would choose to cover a track with, so Morgan steps up with her suggestion.
“Oh, I would definitely say Lydia. That would be fun.
“It wouldn’t be good…but it would be fun! In Houston we used to listen to a song called ‘Body Like a Back Road’ by Sam Hunt, so I would go with that one!”
Such connections are a reason to smile, and with her personal support system, Morgan has always had that to call upon. As she has freely admitted, though, there have been tears, and moments she has wanted to stop.
Wholesome, emotional, awesome; 2019 has brought happiness back in various ways. Morgan considers what this year will mean when she reflects one day.
“Yeah, I think this year has been one for the books, for many different reasons, with winning the World Cup, and more so the journey just to make the team. I think when you’re an athlete and you make it through a lot of ups and downs, and have success and triumph on the other side, it’s that much sweeter.
“Obviously, it was a great team performance to win the World Cup, and it took everyone there. Then having success with Chicago this year, probably one of my most enjoyable professional seasons.
“I think that it’s been a great year, and I’m ending it healthy, which is ideal.”
Playing for new USWNT coach Vlatko Andonovski before the action was done for the year, she got on the scoresheet in the 6-0 win over Costa Rica in Jacksonville, a place dear to her after the time she spent there as a youth player. Recently holding one of her soccer camps in that very city, Morgan has also been named in the first national team camp of 2020, also to be staged in Florida, over in Tampa.
Speaking before her and husband Fabrice spent time on vacation in Saint Lucia, Morgan detailed how else they like to utilise this period at the end of a special year, but another hectic one.
“I think in this time we take a lot of it to try and find ways to give back, to our communities that we grew up in, and just to see people. It’s really difficult just to visit anyone or take trips, so for us, we use this time to do that.
“My soccer camps in Jacksonville and Atlanta, too, so we do those around the holidays. We’re going on vacation, so we take this time also for us; we both have hectic schedules so we take time to reconnect and get off the grid and just be with each other.
“It’s not that much time, it’s about a month-and-a-half that we get off normally, so it’s a short off-season. It flies by really.”
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Pickup soccer takes a huge chunk of importance in their story. It was how Morgan and Fabrice met, so it would be remiss not to include it here (and because it’s been a regular last question on the site for years…).
So, the scene is a 5-a-side game, with four other players to join Morgan’s line-up. The idea is four examples of the various current or former teammates she would enjoy playing alongside here.
“I would definitely say Yūki Nagasato (forward). I loved playing with Camille Abily (midfielder).
“This is small-sided, right? We’ll put Lydia (Williams) (goalkeeper) in there…oh no…Alyssa (Naeher)’s gonna kill me.
“(Suggested they can alternate) Yeah, put those alternating so I don’t get in trouble! One more…oh, we need a defender?
“I’ll go with Becky Sauerbrunn.”
Post-game at the Parc des Princes this summer, she smiled before starting her response to a question on her current outlook with ‘well, I definitely don’t think I’m content…’ She wouldn’t have reached this point if sitting back was her way.
On that note, as 2019 bids us a very last farewell, what does she wish for from these next few years of her career?
“I think obviously I would love to go and play in another cycle. I would love to win another World Cup, an Olympics, and definitely aim for that.
“I wanna win an NWSL Championship with the team. I think I would love, at some point, to go overseas again, eventually.
“For me, I wanna be the best player I can be, and definitely strive to try and be the best midfielder in the world. I would love to do that.
“I think that’s always a player at the highest level’s wish, the goal, to try and strive to be that.”
Whatever is to come, all in due time, with just a little Moe faith.
To catch each of these interviews, you can follow me: @chris_brookes
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