When University of North Carolina standout Kealia Ohai scored the game-winning goal in the FIFA U20 Women’s World Cup earlier this month in Tokyo, UVA’s Morgan Brian was one step behind her. She had followed the play from midfield and arrived at the right time. The goal could have been hers, but it fell to her teammate. Ohai needs to score to change a game. Brian doesn’t.
Sitting in UVA Women’s Soccer and U.S. U20 Women’s National Team Coach Steve Swanson’s office a week later, still recovering from jet lag and the resumption of their real lives, the two of them, Swanson and Brian, filled the room with quiet intensity.
Swanson is stocky, somewhat bow-legged, with a square jaw and a sharp-etched English face. His body crackles with energy, like it’s an effort to sit still even when he’s tired. Brian is lean, almost gangly, with matter-of-fact brown eyes that give nothing away. She is “Mo” to her teammates.
“I think she has her own unique style,” Swanson said. “She’s a little bit of a freak of nature in that she has so many aspects to her game. She can take people on like a Messi, but she can distribute like a Julie Foudy…I’m not sure there’s someone right now in the women’s team you can compare her to.”
In 2006, the last time the international governing body of the sport conducted an official count, an estimated 26 million women played soccer, just over 7 million of them in the U.S. As the men’s game continues to explode into the American mainstream, driven by the success of the MLS and ESPN culture’s embrace of the world’s favorite sport, women’s soccer is coming into its own. Who hasn’t heard of Alex Morgan and Hope Solo? Or Norio Sasaki’s Yamato Nadeshiku, the Pink Carnations, for that matter, and their version of Pacific Rim tiki-taka?
O.K., maybe not, but one thing is for sure: The next Mia Hamm will make a lot more money, and while she may be kicking a ball in her own backyard right now, she just may be playing up the road here, at Klockner Stadium.
Just over two weeks ago, Swanson and Brian, as coach and player, led the U.S. to victory in the FIFA U20 Women’s World Cup. The win, coming on the heels of Olympic triumph this summer, gave notice that the future of U.S women’s soccer is brighter than ever. They say styles make fights. The U.S. played two African, two Asian, and one European team, Germany, en route to the championship. Games make tournaments too. The U.S. lost to Germany 3-0 in its final group stage match, then turned around and beat a North Korean team that fielded nine Olympians in double overtime in the quarterfinal.
“If we don’t have that Germany game, we don’t beat Korea,” Swanson said.
After outclassing Nigeria in the semifinal, with goals from Brian and Ohai, the U.S. avenged itself 1-0 against the defending champion Germans in the final in front of 40,000 fans in Tokyo.
“The emotion was crazy. It’s kind of indescribable. I don’t think I’ve wrapped my head around it yet. It hit us all at once and we were really excited,” said Brian of the victory.
For Swanson, the World Cup win was a sweet confirmation that his coaching approach can be as effective in the tournament format as it has been in every other phase of the game, but it was doubly satisfying because he did it with Brian. Swanson and Brian have spent nearly every day of the past year together, either on the practice field at UVA or in a U.S. camp preparing for the tournament. It’s been grueling, taking them both away from their friends and families, and for the past month, from their team.
When the final whistle blew in Tokyo, after the players disassembled from their ecstatic dogpile celebration, the player and the coach hugged.
“I try to treat her like I would any of the players in that environment, even though she’s more near and dear,” Swanson said. “I think it came out a little bit after the final between the two of us. We just embraced and you kind of let it all out.”
Swanson knows he has a once-in-a-lifetime player on his team. For a coach who has hung his hat on player development, teaching, and sustained success, there isn’t a better feeling.
“For our team, both this team at Virginia and the U.S. team, she’s our engine. She’s the one that dictates play. Most often in the games we’ve played, if Morgan’s playing well, then the team’s playing well,” he said.
Brian’s list of accomplishments over the past two years is exhaustive: Parade Magazine National Player of the Year in 2010, Gatorade High School Athlete of the Year in 2011, Soccer America Freshman of the Year, 2011 NSCAA Women’s Soccer First Team All-American, and, now, FIFA U20 Women’s World Cup champion.
She’s the best young midfielder in the game, a rangy two-footed box to box player who idolizes Leo Messi. Having watched a lot more of the men’s game than the women’s, the only way to describe Brian is that it’s like watching Cesc Fabregas in Steven Gerrard’s body. She’s all elbows and knees as she tears up terrain with her long stride, but on the ball she is upright, patient, happy to let a defender move out of her way, but also capable of moments of unpredictable magic. She’s been told that she’s not physically imposing so many times that she sighs when you bring it up.
“Everybody’s eyes were on Morgan Brian last year in college soccer,” Swanson said. “She’s coming in, no question the undisputed best player in the country, and then she has a year like she had. It takes mental strength to do that. She’s humble and she’s a hard worker. I’m glad she can hear me say that, because I know when we go out to practice today, she’ll be going harder than anybody else.”
Now everybody’s eyes are on the two of them. In his 21 years as a head coach, Swanson has built three successful programs, recorded 20 straight winning seasons, and made 16 NCAA Tournaments, but he’s never won an NCAA title.
I ask about winning the tournament this year.
“I don’t think I’m a failure because I haven’t won an NCAA championship yet,” Swanson said. “And I don’t think I’ll have won the holy grail if we do win it, right?”
“Well, I don’t know,” Brian said. “In the same year it’d be nice.”