USWNT's Lindsey Horan defining her leadership style with challenging Olympics ahead

International Football Association Board’s laws of the game say, “Each team must have a captain on the field of play who wears an identifying armband. The team captain has no special status or privileges but has a degree of responsibility for the behavior of the team.”

Lindsey Horan could have special status and privileges as captain of the U.S. women’s national team. It’s the most prominent public-facing role on a prominent team, a vote of confidence from the manager and a position of trust for teammates. Accordingly, it’s a position that engenders huge respect alongside the huge expectations that have followed the USWNT for decades. The captain is the leader on the field, in the locker room and in front of the press. The prestige can at times be completely overwhelmed by the scrutiny.

For such a role, different players have adapted in different ways. The classic archetypes tend to be the loud leader or the silent leader; the one who speaks up to inspire, or the one who quietly sets the example.

“She’s definitely somewhere in the middle,” said Tierna Davidson. “I feel like she’s louder with the people that she knows and more outgoing with people that she knows, but definitely a little bit more reserved with people that she doesn’t, which is natural for pretty much everybody. So definitely somewhere in the middle, maybe leaning a little bit more towards the introverted side, but definitely more middle of the road.”

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Horan is a veteran presence in a young USWNT Olympic roster (Getty Images)

Maybe that’s a little more of a fair reading of Horan than the overly serious picture she painted of herself when she spoke to The Athletic earlier this year, an interview in which she disapproved of wacky starting XI photos and said, “We need to get back to the football. The football is the most important thing.” Davidson seemed to pin her more as the captain trying to be what everyone needs her to be.



Lindsey Horan just wants to talk soccer

Former head coach Vlatko Andonovski named Horan as captain alongside Alex Morgan in July 2023 ahead of the World Cup, officially stepping into a role that she’d already held informally after previous captain Becky Sauerbrunn missed the tournament with a foot injury. Going through the 2023 World Cup together, Horan said learning from Morgan was a crucial experience. Now, with Emma Hayes in charge and Morgan left off the Olympic roster, Horan is the sole captain.

It’s an interesting change in vibe after years of Morgan, Sauerbrunn, and before them Megan Rapinoe, in the armband. You cannot find a louder, more vibrant presence than Rapinoe, Morgan is no shrinking violet herself and Sauerbrunn has a reputation for calm, cerebral focus.

At media availability in New York previewing the team’s Olympic sendoff friendlies, Horan was swarmed by reporters on the top floor of Nike’s Fifth Avenue building. It is one of Horan’s many duties going into a tournament where the team will seek the type of success that has eluded them for the past five years.

“It hasn’t been long,” Horan said of her tenure as captain. “I think there are so many things that I’ve learned.

“I think I can continue to grow and and also just continue to have voices on this team and push more players to be leaders as well because we need everyone and those voices can’t just be mine.”

That balanced style, a kind of ambiversion amidst so many different personalities and histories, doesn’t necessarily imply a milquetoast leadership. A common theme amongst her teammates has been how much work Horan puts into being captain.

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Horan and Lavelle have been teammates on the USWNT since 2017 (Getty Images)

“I think Lindsey has been very good at connecting with every single player, checking in on every player,” midfielder Rose Lavelle said in Minneapolis before the United States played South Korea. “Players that have been here, players that are new, and making them know that she is available to talk, ask questions too.

“She’s just that person that you can rely on when maybe you need a little help or if there’s something you’re unsure about. I think she’s been great at just making herself available to everyone and making her a safe space for people to go to and talk to when stuff is tough — or when stuff’s good.”

In Gold Cup camp earlier this year, U.S. defender Emily Fox said that Horan had given her a one-on-one talk. “For me personally, she did that a lot — like first game of the World Cup and I really needed that, just a one-on-one talk to prep you and tell you that you got this,” Fox said.

Along with individual check-ins, Horan, alongside Morgan, has had to navigate captaincy through a transitional period from interim head coach Twila Kilgore to the incumbent Emma Hayes, who was officially appointed in November of 2023 but only arrived in person to take the reins in May 2024. While Hayes was technically in charge, everything had to be relayed through Kilgore and her staff. Horan provided backup on the field.

“I think it’s always a really cool process because I think as a professional soccer player, you have to know that change is always there. I think through my career, you always know that there’s going to be a next coach and that’s another opportunity to learn from someone else,” Horan said at open practice in May.

Horan doesn’t hide that she needs support. This is not a role in which you can go it alone and put on a brave face to the twenty-odd other players around you.

“I need the leaders in this group as well to help me out,” Horan said. “I think giving voices to them and making sure that they know that this is their team. I think some of those young ones, they make up a good chunk of their team and I think that’s really important for them to know that I will need them and we are one. It’s not just me at the end of the day.”

There are a few players who are designated to act as captain if Horan is off the field; Naomi Girma, obviously, and Lavelle and Dunn have worn the armband as well.

“I think she does a good job of feeling what the vibe of the group is and really making sure that we hear what we need to hear going into a game,” said center back Girma, who wore the captain’s armband for the first time after Horan substituted off during the June friendly against South Korea in St. Paul. “Whether it’s talking to someone or talking to the team right before we go out and just making sure that we’re all on the same page and knowing that we have each other’s backs.”

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Girma has also worn the armband before (Getty Images)

Davidson said she has seen the growth in Horan as she takes on the responsibility of captainhood, and acknowledged just how much weight the role carries.

“I think she’s understood the importance of what that role means not just for herself as a player, but also as an ambassador for the sport, as an ambassador for the team,” said Davidson. “You know that this team has fantastic history and has done a lot of great things both on and off the field.

“As a leader, I think you grow into it when you understand that you don’t have to be like somebody else, but you do have to lead. So kind of learning about herself, I think, is a lot of what she’s done and understanding how she wants to lead the team.”

Horan got a good dose of what it means to be under the microscope while she still had Morgan to sit next to her. The captain might get to give pump-up speeches and lift trophies, but she also has to throw herself on the media grenade after bad games or negative incidents.

A sober-faced Horan and Morgan sat together and read a prepared statement after teammate Korbin Albert’s anti-LGBTQ social media posts garnered widespread attention in March.

“We’ve worked extremely hard to uphold the integrity of this national team through all of the generations, and we are extremely, extremely sad that this standard was not upheld,” Horan said. “Our fans and our supporters feel like this is a team that they can rally behind, and it’s so important that they feel and continue to feel undeniably heard and seen.”

That day’s press availability was originally scheduled for Mal Swanson and Catarina Macario. Horan and Morgan went first, heading off the questions that would have been asked of their teammates while also emphasizing that the team was handling things internally.

Horan is now on her own as captain, unless Hayes appoints a co-captain. Horan carries by herself that nebulous “degree of responsibility”, assigned by IFAB decree.

No surprise, then, at a seeming sense of relief from Horan during the team’s Olympic media day, where Hayes sat firmly alongside her, press firmly in hand with a very teacher-like, “How are we?” Hayes’ charismatic on-camera style, refined by her growing ease with the American press corps, has given Horan some additional breathing room to say things as just Lindsey and not as team captain Lindsey Horan.

“She gives a lot to us and she tries to take a little bit of that pressure off and takes it on herself,” Horan said. “I think it brings strength, calmness. I think when a coach takes that stress away from the team, it really brings that strength and that collectivity to the group.”

Even with Hayes’ support, Horan’s leadership during the Olympics will be her biggest test to date, maintaining team cohesion under a new coach with a good mix of veteran and younger players, and without the co-captain she learned from at the beginning.

But as Davidson said, these are situations where you don’t have to be a certain type of leader who came before you, you just have to lead. So far, it seems that she’s been able to find her footing with increasing confidence. France awaits.

(Top photo: David Berding/Getty Images; Design: Eamonn Dalton)

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