ATLANTA, Ga.—On Thursday, the U.S. women’s national team will return to Georgia for the first time in over three years. It’s been almost as long since Morgan Brian, arguably the state’s greatest high school soccer player, played a competitive match in her home state.
“It’s a pretty cool feeling,” Brian said of her return to Georgia to represent her country. “Playing in Atlanta, there’s a bunch of people that I know that are coming to the game. Especially for a national team game, you don’t get to play here that often, this close, in the same state… so it’s a very cool feeling.”
Brian and her teammates will play in the cavernous Georgia Dome, home of the Atlanta Falcons football team. The indoor stadium has also hosted the occasional soccer game, including contests featuring European heavyweights AC Milan and Manchester City.
“It’s an awesome place to play,” Brian said after the team’s practice in the Dome on Tuesday, the first time she’s ever stepped foot inside the vast arena, adding with an awestruck chuckle, “There’s a lot of seats in here.”
Nearly 80,000 seats, in fact. Although the U.S. side won’t fill all those seats, with roughly 14,000 tickets sold for Thursday’s match, they have already tripled sales from their last appearance at KSU Soccer Stadium. (Despite the weather issues, U.S. Soccer announced today the game would be played on Thursday as rescheduled.)
Brian admits there might be a hint of nerves heading into the contest, but the midfielder doesn’t expect the large crowd or even larger stadium will ruffle her typically cool feathers any more than the average gameday jitters.
“I think it’s good nerves every time you step on the field. I was talking to some of the players that are veterans and they still get nervous on game day. You’re playing in front of a lot of people, it’s for your country, for the most prestigious team you can play on right now for the women. I think everyone’s going to be nervous to some extent, but I think it’s all good.”
In October of 2010, many of those veteran players took to the pitch for a friendly game against China in the northwestern suburbs of Atlanta. Brian, meanwhile, had just completed a cycle captaining the Under-17 version of the national team, and was preparing for a stellar senior season at Frederica Academy in the coastal Georgia city of St. Simons Island.
With an astounding 71 goals in the spring of 2011, Brian stepped off the field as not only the Georgia Player of the Year — her second consecutive claim to that title — but the Gatorade Female Soccer Player and overall Female Athlete of the Year as well. She was the first soccer player to win the Athlete of the Year award and only the third student-athlete from the state of Georgia to win, with professional basketball players Dwight Howard and Maya Moore being the other two.
At the end of her prep career, though, Brian packed her bags and headed north, favoring the Virginia Cavaliers’ program over her earlier verbal commitment to the University of Georgia. The fit with coach Steve Swanson’s brisk, possession-intensive style of play was a match made in soccer heaven. The heir to outgoing-Cav Sinead Farrelly’s crown, Brian stepped onto the pitch in Charlottesville and immediately seized control of the midfield, even as a freshman. Brian flourished under Swanson’s tutelage, both with the U-20 team that won the World Cup in 2012 and at Virginia, where they almost reached the pinnacle of collegiate sports this past season. Almost.
The 2013 edition of Brian’s Virginia squad put on one of the most spectacular displays in recent memory. Showcasing a flamboyant, mesmerizing attack, the offensive juggernaut went on a 20-game unbeaten streak, including a perfect 13-0 tear through the brutal ACC to finish as the regular season champions. With midfield string-puller Brian at the helm, the Cavalier ship was on a steady course for its first national championship.
That ship ran aground twice in Cary, North Carolina though. A November loss to in-state rival Virginia Tech in the ACC Tournament semifinal provided a sobering smack in the face for their first and, technically, only loss of the season. December’s College Cup semifinal draw and ultimate PK-shootout loss to eventual champions UCLA left the team shell-shocked in the aftermath.
As the underdog Bruins celebrated their winning penalty kick shot on the center stripe of WakeMed Soccer Park, the Cavs sat at the middle of the pitch and looked on in despair. The heart-and-soul of the Virginia attack, Brian was shattered and virtually inconsolable after the game.
“For me, it was just… it was very upsetting,” Brian said with a sigh, still seeming a bit uncomfortable in talking about the game. “We looked back and that was the best season I’ve been at (with) Virginia and I wouldn’t change it. We played great soccer all the way through and we also won and scored a lot of goals and had a lot of fun. I think, for us, it was the people that surrounded it; we were all great friends off the field and I think that’s why everyone was so upset, because we loved to be with each other and playing on the field together. I think that showed for people watching.”
Brian said the team quickly regrouped back home to put the tournament and the season into perspective.
“We were very upset for a good week after that. We got back to Charlottesville in the locker room and we met for a good two hours on what made that team so successful and what made everything work. We couldn’t really find any negatives that whole year… I think we spent most of the whole two hours crying, still the next day, because we had such a great year and it was so fun. It was probably the best season everyone will have at Virginia, so I think we just wanted to review it and actually take it in and realize how much came out of it rather than on losing (or) ‘we didn’t get what we wanted.’”
In addition to their program-best 20-game unbeaten run, the team posted new school records for goals (78), shutouts (16) and wins (24) on their way to Virginia’s first appearance in the national semifinals since 1991. Brian finished the year with 16 goals and 14 assists, tying the Cavaliers’ highest assist output in a season and finishing one point off Caroline Miller’s single season points mark with 46. For her efforts in Virginia’s success, Brian earned the prestigious MAC Hermann Trophy for 2013, college soccer’s highest individual honor.
Now just two weeks out from her 21st birthday, Brian knows there’s still room for improvement in her skill-set, even as the top collegiate player in the country. She’s drawn praise for her speed and spontaneity without the loss of precision. She also balances the roles of provider and finisher.
But when asked what she needs to work on to be successful at the international level, the junior replied in her usual humble fashion, “Everything. It’s just fine-tuning everything you’re good at and working on the things you’re not so great at. I think, for me, it’s just finishing around the 18, speed of play, keeping the ball moving and being more assertive.”
Two weeks ago, she got her first start for the U.S. in the derby against northern rival Canada. Playing the full 90 minutes in a more reserved role as a holding midfielder, Brian garnered positive reviews for her maturity despite being the youngest player on the roster. She says her quick-thinking style developed out of necessity as she played well above her peers from an early age, sometimes even as much as four years beyond her age group.
“Most all of the coaches I have had growing up have emphasized that. I played up when I was young, up until I was about 13 or 14, so I had to be quicker on the ball, I had to have a good touch, because I was smaller than everyone.”
She also gets much of her inspiration from overseas, a fact that won’t surprise those that have watched her play with the University of Virginia.
“I’ve watched Barcelona growing up my whole life,” Brian continued, “so I think that’s a huge reason why. I’ve watched that and tried to take it to the field with me.”
The Catalan club has set a new standard for the men’s game over the last few years with their complex yet fluid play and, with the women’s game gravitating toward a similar style, a player of Brian’s quality could be one of the key ingredients for the U.S. team’s necessary evolution.
The last time she played in Georgia, Morgan Brian was on her way to the greatest award in high school sports. She takes to the turf on Thursday just a month removed from college soccer’s highest honor for a single player. It could be a few more years before she plays here again, but with head coach Tom Sermanni placing her on the fast-track to success, who knows? Maybe the next time the state gets to watch one of its brightest stars play will be on the 2015 World Cup Victory Tour.
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