Jill Ellis opted not to start Lindsey Horan in the World Cup quarterfinal against France, and pretty much everyone who follows the United States Women’s National Team got mad online about it. It was a shocking decision — Horan had been one of the tournament’s best players up until that point, and she’s the reigning NWSL MVP.
As you probably know by now, the USWNT won anyway. Megan Rapinoe and the USWNT defense were superb, so the fact the side struggled to control the midfield against France, something Horan could have helped remedy, was lost in post-match discussion. Ellis got away with that questionable decision — as she has with many others — because her margin for error is so high. Hers is the most talented squad in the world, and Ellis’ backups would be decent starters for any other team.
The logic that led to Ellis opting to start other players ahead of Horan is easy to decipher. She thought her team would lose the possession battle regardless of who she started. She also believed France would struggle more against a team that defended deep and counter-attacked than a team that kept the ball and posed a constant attacking threat, which she was probably right about. For that reason, she started Sam Mewis and Rose Lavelle, who both dribble past defenders and make direct runs at goal more often than Horan.
But here’s the problem with all that: There’s never any good reason to bench Lindsey Fucking Horan.
Horan is arguably the best central midfielder on the planet. She completes passes at a 10 percent better clip than both Mewis and Lavelle, and actually creates more scoring chances than those two despite taking fewer risks, according to StatsBomb’s data. She won 297 duels in NWSL last season, almost double the second-highest total for a USWNT player, Allie Long’s 157. The other players near the top of the leaderboard for this statistic — Long, late cut McCall Zerboni, and Canada’s Desiree Scott — are all defensive midfielders. Horan makes that defensive contribution while playing a more attacking role.
In addition to being a do-everything, ball-retaining and winning, absolute tank of a central midfielder, Horan is also one of the best goal-scoring midfielders in the world. She found the back of the net 14 times in 24 NWSL matches last season, and when including her days as a striker, she has 79 goals in 142 career club matches. Given how hard it is to find strikers who can score at that rate, it seems unbelievable multiple coaches thought she’d be better in central midfield. But both Ellis and Portland Thorns manager Mark Parsons thought just that, and they were right.
You can’t Galaxy Brain your way into a USWNT starting lineup that doesn’t include Horan. She passes just as well as the best playmakers, wins the ball as well as the best defensive midfielders, and without even playing up top, scores as often as the best strikers. She’s the best player on the team.
Horan needs to start against England, and she needs to start the final if the USWNT get there, and when she’s healthy she needs to start every competitive match the team plays. It doesn’t matter what adjustments you have to make to your lineup to fit her in. There is no scenario in which any reasonable person should prefer another player to her, because she does everything at an elite level.