When Lauren Cheney was three years old, she underwent open heart surgery to correct a heart defect. Few could have realized that it was just a minor blip on the road to an athletic career that took Cheney — now Lauren Holiday — to the pinnacle of the soccer world in the 2010s.
As the National Soccer Hall of Fame prepares to honor Holiday this weekend as a Class of 2023 inductee, here is a look at her timeline, starting with that fateful phone call from Abby Wambach.
2008 – Olympic gold
Lauren Cheney, as she was known officially back then, was about to enter her junior season at UCLA when she was named an alternate on the U.S. team that was heading to Beijing to contest the Olympics. At the time, alternates did not travel to the Games and in fact, Cheney and fellow alternates Ali Krieger, Kacey White, and Briana Scurry were not even with the team for its final matches before departing for China. During the last of those matches, against Brazil in San Diego, Abby Wambach shattered her leg in a collision with Andreia and was forced out of the tournament.
Cheney was packing to return to UCLA when her phone rang. It was Wambach calling from the emergency room telling her to get her cleats ready because she was about to be promoted to the full roster.
“She told me she believes in me,” Cheney said following the Olympics. “I was obviously sad for Abby. She was one of my friends. I didn’t want that to happen to anyone. But I was also excited to fill any role they wanted me to fill and to be with the team again.”
After watching the entire group stage from the bench, Cheney featured off the bench in the United States’ three knockout matches including an epic, 1-0 win over Brazil in the gold medal match. She still made it back to UCLA where she helped the Bruins reach the College Cup where they lost in the semifinals, but she did it as an Olympic gold medalist.
2010 – A professional is born
After scoring 71 times at UCLA, Cheney was considered a candidate to be the first player selected in the 2010 Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) draft. That honor would go to Tobin Heath but Holiday was taken second by the Boston Breakers. She became an immediate impact player, scoring eight goals in 32 appearances over two seasons. The Breakers had not been a playoff team during the first WPS season in 2009 but with Holiday they were very much contenders in 2010 and 2011 although playoff success eluded them.
More than a dozen years later, the 2010 draft that produced Holiday is considered the best ever. The first four picks—Heath, Cheney, Kelley O’Hara, and Whitney Engen—became world champions in 2015. Alyssa Naeher and Ashlyn Harris, the backup keepers in 2015, were also taken in that draft.
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2011-12 – World Cup heartbreak and another gold medal
Cheney was anything but an alternate during the 2011-12 World Cup/Olympic run. In a choppy 2011 sendoff match against Mexico, she came off the bench and scored in stoppage time to produce a 1-0 victory. That propelled her to start all six World Cup matches, scoring openers in group play against South Korea and the semifinal against France. This was the World Cup that included the epic Wambach equalizer against Brazil in the quarterfinals and the heartbreaking finals loss to Japan.
A year later, Holiday was back at the Olympics and came home with a second gold medal. After bagging seven assists in five matches during the routine qualifying tournament, she was again a starter at the main tournament. The only exception was the final, when a minor injury reduced her to a 23-minute bench roll in the 2-1 revenge victory over Japan.
2013 – An MVP and a name change
On Jan. 11, 2013, Lauren Cheney was announced as one of three players allocated to the new National Women’s Soccer League club FC Kansas City. The team was shrouded in mystery with little-known owners and a coach, Vlatko Andonovski, who was fresh off coaching in an indoor men’s league.
The assumption was that Cheney, Becky Sauerbrunn, and Nicole Barnhart had been unlucky to land in Kansas City because not every player could get the team they wanted. Cheney, however, said she had asked for Kansas City as a way to get out of her comfort zone and take on a new challenge.
All she did was take the NWSL by storm. She scored 12 goals and added nine assists, still the only player to lead the league in both categories in the same season. She had either a goal or assist in 13 of the 18 games in which she appeared. About the only thing that could stop her was her wedding, for which she missed a pair of July games before returning as Lauren Holiday. FC Kansas City was defeated in the semifinals but Holiday was named the league’s first Most Valuable Player and had reinvented herself in the process.
2014-15 – Three trophies and into the sun
Holiday did not quite return to her MVP form in Kansas City but she did deliver the club a pair of trophies while also helping the U.S. return to the top of the world in Canada during the summer of 2015.
Holiday was the MVP of the 2014 NWSL Championship, assisting on both goals in a 2-1 upset of Seattle Reign FC. The second assist was a doozy, slicing through several Reign players before laying it off to Amy Rodriguez.
In the 2015 final, which was her final match outside U.S. Victory Tour friendlies, Andonovski asked her if she wanted to win the game or be put in a position to score. She chose the former and lined up in a more defensive role in a tight 1-0 win over the Reign.
But the real Lauren Holiday story of 2015 happened in Canada. And as it turned out, an ill-timed yellow card helped unlock the formation riddle that vaulted the U.S. to the mountaintop. Holiday and Megan Rapinoe both saw their second yellows of the tournament during a choppy, round-of-16 win against Colombia. Both would have to watch the quarterfinal from the stands.
The call to replace Holiday went to Morgan Brian, who was superb in the 1-0 win over China. Next up was Germany in a moment-of-truth semifinal, but there were questions. Could Brian be taken out of the lineup after her performance against China? Could Holiday be kept on the bench? As it turned out, the once rigid coach Jill Ellis decided to start them both. Despite some tense moments against Germany, the new formation resulted in a 2-0 win.
The same shape returned for the final when the U.S. rolled over Japan, 5-2. The match is famous for Carli Lloyd getting a hat trick in the opening 16 minutes, but it was actually Holiday’s goal in the 14th minute that stood up as the game-winner.
Two days later, Holiday announced her retirement from soccer effective at the end of 2015.
Holiday played her final game at 28 years old and by the next year was pregnant with her first child. Many fans held out hope of a comeback, but while pregnant with her daughter, Holiday was diagnosed with a brain tumor. She underwent surgery shortly after giving birth. The next year she posted an Instagram photo with a message about her recovery. Holiday gave birth again in 2020.
Approaching eight years since her last soccer game, Holiday has mostly remained out of the public eye since retiring. This despite being married to NBA All-Star Jrue Holiday, who was a member of the 2021 NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks.
On Saturday, Holiday will very much be in the public eye when she takes her rightful place in the National Soccer Hall of Fame, forever cementing her legacy as one of the great players of her time.
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