Aug. 9, 2013
CHARLOTTESVILLE — For many of UVa junior Morgan Brian’s 20 years, soccer has kept her in almost perpetual motion. She’s moved from city to city, training camp to training camp, tournament to tournament — sometimes from country to country — establishing herself along the way as one of the United States’ most promising young players.
“It feels weird when I’m not busy,” Brian said recently.
Since the calendar flipped to 2013, she’s played with the U.S. under-23 team in La Manga, Spain; traveled to England with her UVa coaches and teammates; and been called into training camp with the U.S. national team, for which she made her debut June 15 in Foxboro, Mass.
By Brian’s standards, however, this has been a slow year. And that’s good news for the Cavaliers.
“She went to the 23s, but it wasn’t like the past couple years where she wasn’t around that much,” Virginia coach Steve Swanson said. “She had a chance to work on her strengths, and she had a chance to [focus on] developing her game. That’s much harder to do when you’re traveling and you’re doing camps and you’re coming back in, to really hone in on things.
“To have her around as much as she was in the spring was great. To have her here in the summer, being around the other players and working out, I think has been tremendous for her. It was never something she didn’t want, but given her schedule it was difficult for her to do that.”
The Cavaliers, coming off a season in which they won the ACC title and advanced to the NCAA tournament’s third round, started practice Wednesday, and they leave Friday for a training camp in Michigan.
UVa opens the season Aug. 23 against VCU at Klöckner Stadium. The Wahoos return nine players who started at least 13 games apiece in 2012 — Brian, Makenzy Doniak, Danielle Colaprico, Kate Norbo, Molly Menchel, Morgan Stith, Emily Sonnett, Shasta Fisher and Danielle DeLisle — and have added a transfer, Annie Steinlage, who twice made the All-Big Ten first team as a Michigan State defender.
“I think the potential is there to win a national championship,” said Brian, a 5-7 midfielder from St. Simons Island, Ga.
“We didn’t lose that much from last year’s team. We did lose three valuable players, but that’s not to say we don’t have people that were behind them that could step up and play just as well. We have some players coming in that can help us get to where we want to go, and I think this team, chemistry-wise, is the best it’s ever seen since I’ve been here.”
At this time last summer, Brian and Swanson were preparing to fly to Japan for FIFA’s under-20 World Cup. Swanson was head coach of the United States team, whose top players included Brian.
The U.S. captured the gold medal Sept. 8, 2012, with a 1-0 win over Germany in Tokyo. By the time Swanson and Brian got back to Charlottesville, UVa was well into its fall semester, and the women’s soccer team had played eight games.
“It was probably one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life,” recalled Brian, a kinesiology major who took a full course load last fall.
“Just the fact that I missed the first two-and-a-half weeks of school, that was hard in itself. And I was also trying to focus on trying to win a World Cup at the same time I was missing school. But when I got back from Japan it was even worse, because I was really jet-lagged and exhausted.
“For me it was kind of crazy because of being thrown right into the season. After a World Cup, you kind of want to just go” — Brian leaned back and exhaled — “and take at least two-and-a-half weeks or three weeks off to recuperate, but that was just not the case.”
Of the World Cup experience, Swanson said, “I wouldn’t have known this unless I was right in there with her, but it was intense, it was demanding, it was pressurized, and the travel on top of that was brutal. It would be [unusual] for anybody not to have part of that season compromised. It took her a little while, like it would anybody, to kind of settle in. But I thought she did remarkably well.”
Morgan ended up playing in 15 games for the `Hoos last season and finished with four goals and seven assists. All of her goals came in the postseason.
In 2011, Brian totaled 11 goals and eight assists, and she was named Soccer America’s national freshman of the year as well as a first-team All-American. “But my second year, last year,” she said, “was just a terrible season for me.”
Brian, who repeated as an All-ACC first-team selection, acknowledged a moment later that she was not, in fact, terrible for the `Hoos in 2012. Still, she said, the ACC tournament “was the first time I felt normal after coming back [from Japan]. I got sick and I had all that kind of stuff to deal with. So I was not myself for a long time, a little burned out.”
The break between the end of the regular season and the ACC tournament refreshed Brian. “And then I kind of felt that I came into my own there,” she said, most memorably in Virginia’s semifinal rout of Florida State, a game in which Brian had two goals and an assist.
Among the players Virginia lost from last season was All-America forward Caroline Miller, who scored a school-record 20 goals. With Miller gone, Virginia may need more goals from Brian, and she’s confident she can deliver. So is her coach.
“I think any team she’s been on, she’s produced, and I don’t see that being different with us,” Swanson said. “I think the difficulty last year was just getting over the emotional, mental, physical strain of the World Cup, blending back in with a team that had been doing well and trying to work that balance. But once she got going and got recovered and got in and we started establishing roles, once Morgan Brian got back, you could see her production go up dramatically.”
Brian also expects to take on a larger leadership role this fall. After being away from the team for most of August and part of September last year, she was reluctant to assert herself, “because obviously you haven’t been there and you don’t really know what’s happened,” Brian said.
“So that was a little difficult for me, because there were times I wanted to say things and lead and all that kind of stuff, but I had to be aware of the fact that I couldn’t. But now this year I’ll be here for preseason and throughout the whole thing, and I’ve been here a month with the girls for summer school.”
Brian, whose first appearance on a national team came at the under-14 level, was widely considered the nation’s No. 1 recruit when she entered UVa in 2011, and her impact on the program was immediate.
She’s never been “wide-eyed, like a deer in the headlights” as a college player, Swanson said, but “I do think winning a world championship at the under-20 level, and then going in and playing with the full [national] team and knowing that she can play at that level, it’s definitely raised her confidence and it’s given her a different sense of herself on the soccer field.
“Coming away from these experiences in this last 365 days, I think there is a more confident Morgan Brian. I think she realizes, `If I really put my mind to this, I can do this.’ “
Brian, who won’t turn 21 until February, joined the U.S. senior national team for training in early June.
“To be honest, coming into her first national team camp, she performed sensationally,” U.S. coach Tom Sermanni said in a phone interview this week. “She wasn’t intimidated by the environment, and played exceptionally well.
“She arguably would have been perhaps the best player in camp all week. So that sort of highlights the potential that she has. The qualities that she showed are certainly ones at this stage that I think will be essential in international football moving forward. She’s got the technical qualities, she’s got the calmness in possession, the good decision-making.”
She was a member of the national U14 team, Brian said, when it first occurred to her that she might one day play for the senior team. “Did I ever think it would actually happen? Probably not. The first time I ever thought it was tangible was probably in the last year.”
With her parents, Steve and Vickie, in the stands at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro — “That was pretty special, for them to be there,” Brian said — she entered the June 15 game against South Korea as a reserve in the 77th minute, becoming the seventh player in UVa history to earn a cap with the full national team. She’s only the second Cavalier to play for the national team while still an active college player.
“The worst part about it was just sitting there anticipating going in,” Brian said. “Once I got on the field it was awesome. It was just another soccer game.”
The next Women’s World Cup is in 2015 in Canada, and Brian hopes to play for the United States. The U.S. team will hold training camps periodically over the next two years, and Brian is a candidate to be called in for any or all of them.
“Now, obviously that has to be balanced out with her college season and her commitments and things there,” Sermanni said, “but she’s very much on the radar.”
Swanson knows the national team “could call at any time, and we accept that,” he said. “And the whole thing for our program is, we obviously have lofty goals, we want to win a national championship, we want to win the ACC championship every year, but we also want to support our players and want them to become the best that they can be, because that’s one of the reasons they came here. So we’re very supportive if it happens.
“One of our goals in the program is to help develop players for the next level. That’s something we take great pride in.”
Swanson said he considers Brian “an atypical American soccer player. She’s an amazing athlete, but when you watch her play, that’s not the thing that stands out to you. She’s got an extraordinary brain at her age, and she’s got some skills to handle pressure that allow her to play at any level right now. I think she’s a great role model for any youth player now. This is a different dynamic. We have to start producing players like Morgan Brian at an earlier age that are not just exceptional athletes but [also have mastered] the skills and the thinking part of the game.”
Sermanni was asked what he’d like to see Brian work on.
“It’s interesting,” he said, “with some players there are at times obvious weaknesses. You say, `You need to work on X, Y and Z.’ “
Not so with Brian. “On an actual soccer side, there was nothing that I saw like, `Well, you’re taking too many touches on the ball, or you’re trying too many difficult passes,’ ” Sermanni said. “There wasn’t anything that really jumped out that for me, in this first camp, was a major weakness. It’s probably more things that I would like her to add to her game, rather than weaknesses that I’ve seen, if that makes sense.
“As we go forward, that could be to take more responsibility to dictate the tempo of the game, to dictate how we as a team play, to look at making more incisive decisions rather than easier decisions. Because she’s got the ability and the vision to do that.”