When the opportunity arose for U.S. Women’s national team midfielder Morgan Brian to follow in the footsteps of current U.S. teammates Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe in joining French giants Lyon, it wasn’t just a chance to experience a new country, but also a chance to put a turbulent year behind her.
For the 24-year-old Georgia native, 2017 was without question the most difficult of her professional career. Injuries restricted her to just two starts for the national team from 16 fixtures (she featured in six in total), while she was only able to make ten starts in the NWSL from 12 appearances for Houston and Chicago. For a player lacing up her cleats since the age of four and having a fairly injury free career prior to last year, it made for a difficult 12 months.
“Last year was probably the toughest for me professionally in my career, but for me it’s one of those things where I have to look back and I’m grateful, because it taught me a lot of things as a person and as a player,” said Brian. “For me it’s about looking forward now. I have had some injuries in the last few years, but I think if you ask any footballer if they’ve had injuries through their career, I would say 95% have had them. So, I have to look at it that way – this is part of the job and part of my life.”
As mentioned, Brian has been largely fortunate with injuries throughout her career at high school, then at Virginia, before making her national team debut and entering the NWSL. So, it is perhaps a little unfair, that a player who has 69 caps for her country since making her debut at the end of 2013, has recently had her health and injury record questioned.
Now a month into full training with Lyon, Brian says it can be hard when people start to doubt your health, but that ultimately, it doesn’t matter and her faith helps her to deal with what is said.
“It’s really hard. especially when you read things, but there are always going to be people who doubt you – and especially people who don’t know you. But for me, I have to not read things like that because it doesn’t matter in the end. I have to focus on me and getting myself back on the field – and putting myself in the best positions to do that. It hasn’t been easy, but I think what has kept me grounded is my faith. It’s something I’ve grown in in the past year and I’m thankful for that, because that is the only way I have gotten through it.
“You can see those things and read those things about you, but to know it’s not the truth, I believe in myself, and that’s the core thing that’s gotten me through this – you have to believe in yourself.”
The move to UEFA Women’s Champions League holders Lyon was announced almost a year after Alex Morgan made the same move and presents the perfect opportunity for Brian to start afresh and develop a side of her game that is already her major strength – her technique. In an interview with The Equalizer last year, Alex Morgan outlined the benefits of training in a different environment with more focus on the technical side of the game, and already in her first month, Brian is noticing the benefits of being part of a team of internationals.
“It’s been a change, just like from club team, to college, to professional, to national. Each time I changed teams there is always a transition period – different players that bring a different style of play. I think that was one of the biggest reasons I came over here, to experience a different style of play, to immerse myself into a culture that was extremely technical – they have great soccer IQ.
“I wanted to throw myself into players that are very technical and see that side of the game. What I wanted from the beginning is what I have gotten since I have been here.”
The former Red Stars midfielder had to bide her time to make her debut, which will have added to the nerves having not taken to the field since September 20th as a sub for the U.S. against New Zealand.
She finally made her first appearance for Lyon last week in the French Cup at home to Toulouse of the second division. It was her first start in a competitive match since September 9th for the Red Stars away in Kansas City.
It was an 11-0 win for her new side, and even a goal for the Virginia graduate – something she did not manage in the NWSL. Although her debut and goal came against lower league opposition, the midfielder admitted it was the perfect game to “get my feet wet with the team” and settle herself in, but was simply just eager to get on the field.
“At this point in time I was just itching to get on the field. Any game at this time would have been ideal. Everything is new, it was the perfect game for me to settle in with my new teammates.
“It was a fun period for me because I hadn’t played a game in a really long time. It was a good time to get out there and play some soccer.”
And what about that goal, which came from a well worked free-kick from Camille Abily?
“We made eye contact pretty early while they (Toulouse) were still setting up. It was perfect timing; the ball came across and I just tried to get my right foot on it. It was kind of one of those things where I blacked out and was pretty excited to score my first goal for Lyon.”
Brian will face bigger challenges in her career at Lyon, with few more challenging than an upcoming UEFA Women’s Champions League quarter-final against FC Barcelona. The Spaniards made the semi-final of the competition last season, before being knocked out by Paris Saint-Germain, but have heavily invested in their squad since then, recruiting the likes of FIFA World Player of the Year, Lieke Martens.
With Alex Morgan and Carli Lloyd playing in the competition last year, and Crystal Dunn also reaching the quarter-finals with Chelsea this year (they play France’s other representative Montpellier), Brian was open in admitting that the competition continues to be a huge draw for US players.
“I’m really looking forward to that (the Champions League), It’s a big draw for American players and internationals. I know Barcelona are a great side, all the games in the Champions League from here on out are top class matches and will bring out the best in every player. I’m excited to see the level. Everyone is excited about the match ahead.”
Another thing Brian may have to get used to is not always been a regular starter. Lyon is blessed with talent all over the field, and during their own spells with the club, Morgan and Rapinoe were not always in the starting XI. She played 12 minutes away in Bordeaux this past weekend.
That may well be music to the ears of US Coach Jill Ellis, who, as already stated, was rarely able to call on Brian last year. But it may also benefit the two-time Hermann Trophy winner too. Her workload since making her debut for the national team in 2013 has been, well, heavy to say the least.
Impact on her involvement with the national team was certainly something that Brian had to think over when making the move to France, stating it was a “huge consideration” when mulling over the move.
“For me and most of the players on the National Team, that is our first priority. We want to be on the World Cup rosters and Olympic rosters, and you do worry about that, because it’s your first priority and we wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize that. But at the same time, each player is different and has to look at their situation and realize ‘what is going to help me to get to where I want to be.’
“From a coaching perspective, you have a ton of conversations because you want to make sure you’re not making the wrong decision. It’s important that each player is put in the best environment possible to get the best out of themselves. Any coach or team would love to have a player feel like they’re happy playing soccer, they’re enjoying themselves and they’re growing and becoming the best versions of themselves.
“So I think it’s one of those things where it’s a player by player basis. There’s film on every game, it’s not like they are not going to be able to see us play. We won’t be forgotten about just because we are in a different country.”
The Lyon midfielder’s return to fitness is a boost for the U.S., and at time of publication, Brian has been named in Jill Ellis’ preliminary roster for the SheBelieves Cup.
The 26 players will be trimmed down to 23, and should Brian play any part, it will be her first appearance for her country in six months.
To hear the near 30 minute interview with Morgan Brian in its entirety, where she also speaks more about settling into her new team and surroundings, as well as leaving the NWSL, visit our friends at Women’s Soccer Zone and listen to their podcast with Moe.